If a restaurant is full, that probably means everyone likes it. If the place is empty, that probably means nobody likes it.
This was the basic test my family followed when I was a kid and we went on road trips. Since the internet was not overflowing with opinionated amateur restaurant reviews in the 1990s, we used a guidebook, usually the AAA guide with its antiquated diamond ratings, to decide where to eat. But the guides were never as reliable as simply pulling up to a joint and looking inside.
On many a trip, we parked in an empty lot and peeked in a restaurant's windows to see nothing but one or two bored-looking waiters polishing glasses and playing with the place settings. My parents would say something like, "I bet there's a reason nobody comes here. Let's go to that place down the street that looked popular." And we'd pack right back into the minivan.
Now, going to restaurants is my job. If I drive all the way to Plano to try a new place and there isn't a single customer in the house, I can't just turn around and drive home. And here is a thrilling lesson I've learned from doing this work: Empty restaurants can be fantastic.
We tend to assume that an eatery is empty because it sucks. But there are other, more hopeful reasons that often get forgotten.
Maybe the neighborhood is more popular at a certain time of day. Zeytin Mediterranean Grill in Irving, an excellent Turkish restaurant, does almost all of its business at lunchtime, when it has a buffet for the employees of Las Colinas office towers. So it looks empty at dinner, but it's still wonderful.
Maybe the restaurant comes from a culture in which people eat at times you don't. Many Mexican spots in Oak Cliff, like Mi Lindo Oaxaca, see their weekend lunch rushes at 1:30 p.m. or even later. Others have a cadre of customers who time their meals to coincide with soccer or Cowboys games.
Korean eateries like DanSungSa, Ddong Ggo and Dal Dong Nae do their best business after 10 p.m., even after midnight, as night owls begin their patrols and karaoke clubbers look for food to soak up the booze. San Jang, a Korean barbecue spot on Harry Hines Boulevard, is open from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. If you show up at a "normal" American dinnertime, the place is just getting started.
But the biggest reason that a good restaurant might be empty is that it's simply too small to splash lots of money on advertising and promotion. Those little mom-and-pop shops everyone loves to "discover" often lack the budget for a PR team, a website or even, in some cases, a sign out front. They may genuinely have no idea how to attract new customers aside from filling out a Yelp profile and crossing their fingers.
Need examples? Almost all of my favorite memories as the Observer food critic start with an empty restaurant. SpicyZest, the outstanding Sri Lankan restaurant in Farmers Branch that just celebrated its second birthday, was empty when my friends and I first walked in. One night at Bilad Bakery and Restaurant in Richardson, the last remaining employee simply left as I finished my sandwich, abandoning the dining room to one confused guest. At Lima Taverna in Plano, my date and I were the only diners in the place on every review visit.
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Those are all very good restaurants. (In fact, I would rank Mi Lindo Oaxaca and SpicyZest in the Dallas area's top 20.) Not only are they all still open, but they are on their way to becoming neighborhood institutions. Lima Taverna even got reviewed in The Dallas Morning News. Once, these places were all empty.
The lesson I've learned is this: Everybody starts somewhere. If you wouldn't judge a person for beginning at the bottom and working her way up, don't judge a restaurant for that either. A restaurant might be empty because this is not its peak time or because it caters to an audience that keeps unusual hours. Or a restaurant might be empty because it's wonderful but just needs a chance. Who knows? Give it that chance.
Recently, I entered a dining room without a single person — no customers, no employees. The jangling front door failed to bring any staff out from the back of the house, so I opened and closed the door twice more. Then I lifted a chair about six inches off the ground and dropped it.
That restaurant's food is exciting and delicious. Its owners are good people. We'll have a review in May.