We've all been there, done that. Come to a new town on business, pleasure, or for a change of venue, and wondering where to go to get good food. Some people seem to equate "good food" with "pricey", which isn't always the case, and tastes differ from person to person.
Others head over to online review sites -- all great resources as long as one's own taste is that of the average restaurant-goer. The same is true for local food media. Should I really believe Reviewer A who bemoans the lack of forks at a barbecue restaurant (answer: No!) or Reviewer B who thinks it's just great food that matters, sauces and forks be damned (answer: Yes). For my travels during the past two decades I've made a small list of things to avoid, and it's served me well so far. Obviously, barbecue joints are exempt from all these rules, but for the rest these seem to be useful. So, here it is, my Top 10 list of things I avoid when trying to find good food in a new town.
10. Running Televisions I come to eat, have a great conversation, enjoy my food, and focus on the people and place. I'm really not interested in the Knicks, Cubs or Law & Order. If I was, I'd be at home, cooking, and watching the same content on my obscenely huge flat-screen television.
Restaurants running televisions may be forgiven in some cases (Superbowl Sunday, for example, or a national tragedy, but who'd want to eat quail during a national disaster?). Usually, thought, they are the culinary equivalent of a parlor trick: "Here, look at this shiny bunny (television) while I hide the ace (bad preparation, dirty plates, milky meat) behind my back."
9. Servers Wearing Street Clothes Serving (and cooking) is a job. Jobs come with requirements. That doesn't mean that your average T.G.I McReallybad's uniformed flair-wielding servers are a mark of culinary quality, but if all else seems in order, this is a definite turnoff for me. Servers chewing gum, servers wearing stained clothing, servers wearing "flair" and servers playing with their hair or beard while standing around are other warning signs. Run!
8. Mispeled (See what I did there?) Menus Apparently this one wields some kind of charm factor when it comes to Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Excluding those, however, a menu is the closest a chef will ever come to communicating directly with his or her diners outside of their dishes. Pride in one's menu, its design, spelling and contents, is inherent in good chefs. More than one of the greats I have met has agonized for days over their menus.
Spelling mistakes or generally unappetizing looking menus show either a lack of care and pedantry on the chef's side or -- worse -- a powerless cook in the back with an uninterested general manager pulling the strings. Avoid.
7. Menu Tomes The more dishes a restaurant serves, the less care every single dish receives. That's not conjecture, it's experience. As a chef, I too am guilty of slapping together 40-dish menus and struggling to keep up. Good restaurants strike a balance between too little and too much selection, focus on the chef's and brigade's strengths, select good product and create great dishes. Six pages of food (or, even, three) require an insane amount of holding for service and a lot of cowboying to make things not go bad while the likelihood a dish is chosen goes down with every additional item on the menu.
Even worse, should you choose the one dish no one else ever eats you'll be subjected to food that's been held for hours, prepared by a cook who can barely remember how to make it.
6. Extreme Menu Adjective Abuse "Seared to perfection," "a dream in...," "lovingly created" and so on. Also "zesty," "tangy," or any other overused adjective. Stay away from any place using "EVOO" on its menu. A good menu tells about the dish, its components, its name and, in rare cases, its particular reason to be on the menu. I want everything I eat to be made as close to perfection as possible and I want it to be lovingly created. I call this the DRC syndrome -- like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is neither democratic nor a res publica, if you have to spell it out for people to believe it, it's likely not true.
5. Restaurant Reviews and Magazine Articles are Copied, Cut and Put in the Window or Framed in the Foyer. OK, OK, I have to qualify this. Small casual eateries, new restaurants, diner-style places, carts or taco trucks are exempted from this rule. We all remember our first review, good or bad, and we all proudly displayed our firsts. After a few years in business, however, our customers should come for reasons other than some local reviewer's opinion in the window (Unless it's a City of Ate review. Those are real treasures). Window reviews practically scream "Hey, please, eat here. We are liked..."
4. Bread Baskets on the Counter They've been there for hours. If, walking into an establishment, you spot bread baskets on the counter, stacked two-high and three-across or so, walk out. This is another sign your chef cares nothing about good food: condiments on the tables placed there before you arrived.
3. You are Made to Wait More Than Five Minutes When More Seats are Empty than Filled To be fair, restaurants often have fewer staff than needed to serve the number of seats, especially during the week. Sometimes the only two servers' tables are taken and you'll be asked to wait for a few minutes. Nothing wrong about that. Where it gets iffy is if only three tables are taken, there's two waiters and you're still made to wait. Either the restaurant tries to look more exclusive than it is, or the host simply doesn't like you. Leave.
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The same is true for reservations. Allow no more than 10 minutes above the reservation time to be seated. The restaurant will happily give away your table if you don't show in that time frame, so you should do the same. Or the place is almost empty and you're being seated next to the kitchen or toilets. What are they hoping for? Someone "better" to come along shortly?
2. The Manager Apologizes for a Gaffe, Offers to Take Something off the Bill, and Then Doesn't. OK, the rule only applies after you've eaten at a place, so it's too late to help steer you away from a restaurant. But it's never too late to not come back. This is a common trick: Make diners feel good with a promise while "forgetting" to inform the staff. In the end, most diners are more likely to pay the tab than to ask to see the manager again. A win-win for him, a loss for you.
1. It's a Chain ... 'nuff said.