Chefs Revealed The Red Flags To Look Out For In Restaurants – And Some Are Simply Horrifying

Going out to eat is one of life’s simple pleasures, and, by and large, most restaurant visits will be of a high standard. You’ll have occasions when things go wrong, though, whether because of bad service, poor quality food or unappealing ambiance. But what if we told you there are red flags you can keep an eye out for that could help you predict whether an eatery is worth your time or not? Read on to find out more.

40. Dirty parking lot

This red flag is one you can spot before you even enter the restaurant. If the parking lot is dirty, with cigarette butts and trash on the ground, it should give you pause. If the restaurant’s doors and windows are grimy as well, it all adds up to a picture of an establishment that neglects cleanliness. And you don’t want to eat anywhere that isn’t clean. Trust us.

39. Too many themes

Fabiana Melendez, a food publicist from Texas, told Reader’s Digest magazine in December 2019, “All restaurants have a look and feel. That’s what attracts customers. If you end up somewhere that has too many themes, such as a cool dive bar inside but a nautical-themed beach bar out back, this can sometimes be an indication service and management are not in-sync behind the scenes.” Makes sense.

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38. Too many influencer reviews

These days it’s common for people to check out an establishment’s online reviews before making the call to eat there. But be sure to check whether a large portion of those reviews are from influencers, rather than garden-variety customers. Eateries often pay influencers to hype them on social media, so you may not be reading a true representation of the restaurant’s quality.

37. All the patrons being tourists

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A great rule for eating while on vacation is to take your cue from the locals. Food blogger Michelle Stansbury told Reader’s Digest, “If you only see other tourists at a restaurant, perhaps because it’s the only place near a popular attraction, I would hesitate to eat there. Restaurants where the locals are eating indicate that at least some diners are there because of its reputation.”

36. Funny smells in the restaurant

When you walk into a restaurant, you want to be tantalized by the smell of delicious food. What you don’t want, though, is to have your nostrils assaulted by bad smells. If you’re detecting burned food or dirty water from a mop and bucket, or your booth’s upholstery has an odd odor, you should probably get out of there. The restaurant is clearly not being careful enough about interior cleanliness.

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35. A bathroom that isn’t spotless

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Restaurant consultant Alan Guinn told Reader’s Digest, “It’s noteworthy that, in all of my career, I’ve never been in a restaurant with a poorly maintained restroom that had a stellar kitchen or served a superior food product.” He’s right too. A gross restroom is a great indicator that the restaurant staff have poor attention to detail and aren’t keeping on top of cleaning.

34. Chaotic kitchen

Many restaurants are laid out in an open-plan manner that allows customers to see into the kitchen. It’s a good way for a place to show that they’ve got nothing to hide. But it can go the other way sometimes too. If you are looking at a kitchen that seems chaotic, with lots of staff running around a yelling at each other, it can point to the whole operation being close to going off the rails.

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33. Building in disrepair

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Guinn admitted to Reader’s Digest that while sometimes it was possible to find a great meal in a not-so-great location, it was pretty rare. He said, “You can tell much by considering the general state of disrepair of the restaurant itself. Stained ceiling tiles, unswept or unvacuumed floors, dead or dying plants, torn wallpaper, or paint chipped and stained, and especially unkempt restrooms don’t bode well for the upcoming meal.”

32. Restaurant deserted

According to food branding agency head honcho Kenny Colvin, “The number one thing to look for when choosing a restaurant is customers.” Stands to reason, right? He added, “If no one is eating in a restaurant, there’s a reason for it. It could be overpriced, it could be bad customer service or bad food, but if the seats are empty, consider it a red flag.”

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31. Filthy and dog-eared menus

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There are few things more off-putting in a restaurant than being handed a dirty, dog-eared menu. You’re choosing what to eat for dinner, not thumbing through a well-worn paperback novel you found down the side of your uncle’s couch cushions! Guinn told Reader’s Digest that a torn menu, “tells you the waitstaff isn’t adequately trained, or that the manager doesn’t pay attention to his or her restaurant environment.”

30. Unhappy diners

Michelle Stansbury pointed out another great red flag to Reader’s Digest that, in hindsight, seems blindingly obvious. She noted, “Look around at the people eating or just finished with their food. If they seem unimpressed with their food, it’s an easy guess you might be with yours as well.” Makes sense, right?

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29. Error-prone staff

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It’s super frustrating when you go out to eat, and the restaurant gets your order wrong, but it’s usually an easy fix. Someone made a mistake, but no harm, no foul. However, if the servers mess up multiple orders in a row, that could point to a larger problem behind the scenes.

28. Unusually large number of items on the menu

Many different cuisines appearing on one restaurant menu is a red flag, according to food writer Luisa Ruocco. She told Insider website in May 2019, “Anywhere that has a really broad choice of food rings alarm bells as to how fresh the food is. For example, a restaurant will not buy fresh meat every morning if the chances of someone ordering a steak are one in 50.” In that scenario, it’d be better to visit a specialty steak restaurant.

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27. Sickly-looking waitstaff

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Redditor and chef thick_andy posted an interesting red flag concerning a restaurant’s staff. His advice was to be wary if any of the waiters or waitresses exhibit signs of illness. He wrote, “If restaurant owners encourage their waitstaff to work while sick – or don’t help to find a replacement – you can count on getting sick too.”

26. Mystery seafood origins

Jonathan Gill, chef at Portland’s RingSide Fish House, told Thrillist website a great tip for finding out if a seafood restaurant is legit in October 2016. He said, “Talk to your server and ask them where the fish is from. The better places will be able to tell you.” He added, “If they can’t tell you where it’s from, they probably don’t get in whole, fresh fish. It’s probably portion-cut and frozen.”

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25. No substitutions

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Edymnion, a Reddit user and chef, stated that “No substitutions” is a super red flaggy policy in a restaurant. They posted, “If the place makes its own food, they can sub virtually anything for anything else. While they may try to play it up as, ‘Our food is perfect, and we refuse to change it on moral grounds,’ it’s almost always a sign of ‘This was made two months ago, and all we do is reheat it.’”

24. Clogged salt and pepper shakers

The next time you’re in a restaurant, and you want to add some salt to your food, be sure to check the cleanliness of the saltshaker. As Redditor faployst attested, “If the holes are clogged and the top is dirty, that thing has been refilled 100 times without being washed.” In other words, that salt better come out of the shaker lickety-split or you’re heading for the door.

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23. White coffee machine steamer

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We all love a cup of joe when we head out to a restaurant, right? It’s usually nice to have one after the meal, maybe with a slice of pie for dessert. Delicious. But Redditor fernanzgz warned, “If the restaurant has a coffee machine visible, take a look at the steamer. If it’s covered in white, it means they don’t clean it after frothing the milk.” A great tip.

22. Colorful soda machine nozzles

Self-service soda machines are a fun novelty in restaurants these days, especially the ones where you can mix and match flavorings. We love those. Redditor StumbleKitty had some sage advice, though, when they wrote, “Take a napkin around the inside of any of the clear soda nozzles. If your napkin comes out pink, brown, or orange, skip the soda.”

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21. Smell of fish in a seafood restaurant

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Smelling fish when you enter a seafood restaurant sounds perfectly reasonable to most people. But according to My Food Subscriptions content editor Beverly Friedmann, it’s not a good sign. She told The Delite website in July 2019, “It means the food isn’t fresh – fresh seafood should not have a strong scent.” Eating seafood that is nearing or past its sell-by date can make you extremely sick, so this is definitely one red flag to pay close attention to.

20. Carpets a no-no

A chef and Reddit user came up with a red flag we’d never considered before: carpets. From a restaurant’s perspective, a carpet is preferable to a tiled floor because it’s quieter, and customers will never slip on it. But eyebrowshampoo’s opinion was, “Vacuuming only goes so far in a restaurant, and I know they never, ever shampooed the one at my place.” Gross.

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19. Buffets

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Redditor contrabardus posted an epic rant about the dangers of buffet eating. They wrote, “You are relying on the sanitation habits of the general public and underpaid employees who wear plastic gloves, had to watch a video about food safety once and get told to wash their hands by an assistant manager every few days or so.” All in all, they were convinced, “No matter how well managed a buffet is, it can never be sanitary.”

18. Meal coming suspiciously quickly

Dropping into a fast food joint for a quick burger and fries is one thing, but if you go to a normal restaurant, you’ll expect to wait for your food to be cooked fresh. Therefore, if your meal arrives suspiciously quickly, it’s probably a red flag. Beverly Friedmann said, “Behind the scenes, you’re likely receiving food that’s been frozen or even microwaved (if you’ve ordered a hot meal).”

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17. Pictures on the menu that aren’t from the restaurant

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As a rule, a restaurant having photographs of the food on their menu is a bit of a faux pas. It’s usually a no-no in high-end establishments. But there is an even worse red flag: if the pictures on the menu are obviously not of food from the actual restaurant. If you’re looking at a menu with stock photos of pizza and pasta? Get out of there. Fast.

16. Fruit flies

Fruit flies are attracted to rotting fruit, decaying meat, clogged drains and sugary liquid spillages. All these things can be found in any working restaurant, so the staff have to work hard to keep them away by maintaining fastidious hygiene. If they have done this, there will be no flies in sight. But if you see some flying around, the restaurant’s cleaning practices may be suspect.

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15. Misspelled menu items

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A word of warning: if you order “krab cakes” at a restaurant, you’re probably not getting real crab. British chef Andrew Masters told The Delite, “Misspellings are often deliberate. A common example is ‘krab cakes.’ It means they don’t have to sell you the real thing.” It’s a sneaky trick, for sure.

14. If there is no host or hostess to greet you

Dennis P. Gemberling, a hospitality and restaurant consultant, told Insider that a huge red flag was an establishment not having a host or hostess greet their customers. He said, “It just shows they are not on top of anything and there’s no attentiveness to service. If they’re lacking there, they’re most likely lacking in all other areas of the operation.”

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13. Your server taking longer than five minutes to get to you

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A large part of a server’s job is to make you feel welcome and looked after. So Gemberling believes it’s a red flag if a server takes longer than five minutes to take your initial drinks order, or doesn’t say, “I’ll be right with you,” if they’re super busy. His opinion is, “It just speaks to the lack of supervision, lack of training and lack of putting the customer first.”

12. Too many adjectives

Lessley Anderson of foodie website Chowhound believes that using too many adjectives in menu spiels is a big red flag. Yes, it’s likely an attempt to make the food sound as amazing as possible by using terms such as “luscious.” But it could also be a restaurant trying too hard to disguise average product. The food should sell itself in simple terms, without needing to be juiced up by superlatives.

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11. Bread in prefilled baskets

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One of our absolute favorite aspects of restaurant-going is when the place offers fancy bread with oils and butter as an opener to your meal. But if the bread is already sitting on the table, or you catch a glimpse of several prefilled baskets getting ready to be distributed to tables, it’s a definite red flag. Hot, fresh bread is awesome. Stale, dry bread that’s been sitting around is not.

10. Crusty condiments

Darron Cardosa, also known as “The Bitchy Waiter,” told entertainment website Salon that condiments were key. He said, “Look at the ketchup bottle. If you remove the lid and see a thick layer of crust, it’s a good indication that the bottle has been there for far too long without a server ever wiping it down, or that it has been married with other bottles of ketchup, which is just as disgusting. It’s a sign that someone does not care.”

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9. Low or pending health rating

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In New York, an A or B health inspector rating is acceptable for a restaurant. However, according to Cardosa, if the rating in the front window says, “grade pending,” it’s a huge red flag. He revealed, “That means they received a grade they did not like, and the restaurant has decided to fight it. It could be lower than a B, and you would never choose to eat there if you knew they had a C.”

8. Poor reaction to negative online reviews

Looking up a restaurant’s Yelp reviews can sometimes lead you down a rabbit hole, especially if you see the owner arguing with people posting negative write-ups. Cardosa told Salon, “Sometimes restaurant owners can tell you what kind of experience to expect just by the way they react to reviews on social media. If they respond poorly online, they probably aren’t so nice in person either.”

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7. Higher-priced menu items

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Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain believed that restaurants that offered marked-up items like truffle fries were a big red flag. This is because dishes such as these hint at class and sophistication, whereas in reality the fancy truffle oil is probably only a small amount of the real deal mixed with olive oil and a chemical made in a lab. These higher-priced items are pretty much a scam.

6. Smell of grease

If you head out to a restaurant for the evening and are greeted with something that smells like grease, you should leave. Why? Well, because that smell is grease. Reddit user FoxZach63 posted, “I clean kitchen exhaust systems. If you walk in a restaurant and can smell grease, walk out. That means the place isn’t clean, from the exhaust system to cooking equipment.”

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5. Messy area around the trash cans

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Redditor liberty285code6 posted that a restaurant’s dumpster situation is a tell-tale sign of a poorly run operation. They wrote, “If it’s a good restaurant, it’ll look like a regular backdoor trash can area. If it’s somewhere you shouldn’t eat, it’ll look like a disaster zone. Cooks who can’t keep up in the kitchen can’t keep up with breaking down boxes and taking out garbage, so they just throw stuff outside and deal with it later.”

4. Lack of ServSafe certificates

The next time you go out for dinner, take a peek at the wall to see how many of the restaurant’s staff have ServSafe certificates hanging there. All managers in the food service industry have to undergo the national training course, so they will be well versed in food safety, but it can only be a positive if other staff members have passed the course as well. An unusually small number of certificates could be a red flag.

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3. Dirty cutlery

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Picking up a knife and fork only to find dirt is sure to turn anyone’s stomach. Reddit user thefabulousbomb wrote, “Most cutlery barely gets washed. It gets rubbed with soap, sprayed with water, and chucked in a dishwasher. It’s then meant to be polished with hot water when it’s brought to the table set-up area; this is where we actually check it for leftover grime.” If this hasn’t been done, you’d be well within your rights to leave.

2. Over-the-top boasts on the menu

Angry celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay told The Independent website in May 2017 about one of his personal restaurant red flags. He’s no fan of over-the-top boasting on a menu. In his trademark irascible manner, he said, “They start coming up with these terminologies, saying ‘and the wicked, famous, best in the country profiteroles.’ Who said that? Who named that?’” Sorry restaurants, you’re not going to pull the wool over Chef Ramsay’s eyes.

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1. Refusal to seat you where you want

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Dennis P. Gemberling told Insider that a host refusing to seat you at a table of your choosing is a red flag. After all, it can point to poor customer service and a reluctance to adapt to customer requests. Gemberling stated, “If they’re so intent on seating you in a certain place or not letting you sit where you want, I’d turn around and walk right out.”

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