5@5 - Signs you're in a good restaurant
September 14th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Yesterday, we learned if the restaurant is already out of the snapper special during the first seating and the waiter wants to know your family tree, chances are Sean Elder, editor in chief of the digital food magazine Real Eats, isn't going to be returning to said eating establishment anytime soon.

More than 400 of you weighed in to agree, disagree and agree to disagree on Elder's restaurant red flags - and now he's back, counterpoint style, to identify the clues that your meal ahead is in capable hands.

Five Signs You Are In A Good Restaurant: Sean Elder

1. “If you’re late for your reservation, they should still look thrilled to see you.”
"So says our columnist Serena Bass and it’s a shared fantasy: People eat out in nice places for a different reality than the one that greets them at work. Each customer should leave feeling like they are like their own personalized 'Truman Show' and it has all been done for them. And they should arrive feeling that way, too."

2. “Tell me what you like in a white/red and I’ll pair it with what you’re having.”
"When you ask the waiter for a wine recommendation, it’s okay if they don’t know - but they should quickly go to the sommelier or bartender for some expertise. It’s about being taken care of. As my wife, a busy executive says, 'I make decisions all day long. Give me some help here!'"

3. “The bread is crusty and delicious, it’s warm when it’s brought to the table, and the butter is not rock hard.”
"So says Real Eats contributor Barbara Fairchild, and many people mention bread: If it arrives quickly, and deliciously, it’s almost like a first kiss, or at least a good handshake. It augurs well for the rest of the restaurant. (The opposite is also true.)"

4. “Don’t drown me with water.”
"Who would have thought that water pouring was such an art? But the only thing worse than an empty glass when you’re feeling parched is the busboy with the eyes of an assassin, waiting for you to take a single sip before he leaps in and fills your glass again. It’s creepy, and makes conversation impossible too."

5. “They’ll cook your meat/fish/fowl the way you want it.”
"People are funny about meat and the grill, and my wife and I have nearly come to blows over her insistence that I ruin a perfectly good steak by leaving it on too long - but in a restaurant, however you want it is how it should be.

Nothing worse than being lectured by some earnest waiter - or worse yet, chef - about how they can’t, in good conscience, serve you a bloody burger. Unless there’s a law against it (which there may be in Canada), give me my meat the way I want it, and let me die with my boots on."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Dining • Restaurants • Service • Think


soundoff (474 Responses)
  1. Torri Outram

    I like to spend my free time by scaning various internet recourses. Today I came across your site and I found it is as one of the best free resources available! Well done! Keep on this quality!

    November 17, 2011 at 8:09 pm | Reply
  2. sayhi2yourmom4me

    Sign #6: the food tastes good

    September 19, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Reply
    • ryan

      We went to dinner, we where 2 and half hours late and had reservations for 7pm they where sure happy to see us since they had their best table open all night waiting for us. Since my wife had all ready had dinner. we ended up just having a cup of coffee but left the waiter 100% or $10 yeah they really made our night but we really screwed theirs. I am sure they will be happy to see the next late reservation. Since as you wrote this is what makes a great restaurant. Like you are happy to see your guest arrive three hours late after you spent all day getting ready yah right get a clue.

      September 24, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  3. World Traveler

    Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Dallas, TX. I have traveled all over the world, and this is my favorite restaurant by far, Their steaks, lobster, desserts, wine, ambience, and general attitude has always remained tops. I have been going there for the past thirteen years, and still see some of the same wait staff, and other employees.

    September 19, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Reply
  4. whitfang

    The presence of Splenda or Equal sweetner seems to indicate a decent/excellent restaurant. Those pink packets just don't do it!

    September 19, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  5. James

    My best restaurant experience was at this place called George in Toronto. I was suppose to spend the night with my girlfriend, but instead she got called to a flight. To salvage the night, I offered to take her cousin who was in town instead. To make things worse, it started snowing quite heavily. We arrived to the restaurant 30 minutes late (but I called), at 9 pm...to a packed restaurant.

    They had kept my reserved table ready, even though there was a lineup. Even though it was 9pm, the chef agreed to make us a 7 course tasting. By the time we had our 6th course, the restaurant was empty. After our dessert, our body language definitely said we were ready to leave as we had been alone in the restaurant for close to an hour now. But the hostess came, insisted we stay a little longer, and poured us 2 comped glasses of champagne. I left a very nice tip, but the best surprise was somehow, they knew which car was mine, and were it was parked. They had shoveled a path to my car, and cleaned all the snow off it.

    I called the next day to thank the owner and hostess for a wonderful night. This was my first experience at George, and after this it became a restaurant I frequented.

    September 19, 2011 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • lillllyyy

      do u really expect us to believe that you liar.

      September 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  6. Scott

    I think the article is lousy and aside from a few good comments and interesting memorable stories, most of the comments are as well. A good restraunt is one that has a small but well rounded menu (not as many choices as a larger menu but everything done to perfection), the wait staff is friendly and professional (attention to detail, service, neat and clean), food is consistant (whenever you go to that same restraunt you will get the exact same thing and it will be excellent), seating is comfortable anf finally, the price is not over-inflated or an obvious ripoff. These are the five signs of a good restruant and if they are all met...... You will return. Youa re not going out to dine, for alcohol. You can get that anywhere.

    September 19, 2011 at 6:40 am | Reply
  7. Jo

    jillybean, may your next beautiful restaurant dinner be filled with child puke. Then talk.

    September 18, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Reply
    • Jo

      I'm actually playjojo, not the jo below, I don't want her catching any flack. I also posted about Tom Cruise. Jo came up instead. Just thought I clarify.

      September 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  8. Jo

    the rest rooms should be CLEAN!!!!

    September 18, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply
    • Ruderalis

      Then stop peeing on the floor!

      September 18, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Reply
  9. Fred Zagat

    no poop in the soup is also a good sign

    September 18, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  10. jillybean

    I like bread however I can eat a lot of bread at home and I buy good bread. When I am out, I like to eat food I normally wouldn't prepare due to cost or lack of experience. Some places bring you enough bread for a week, no thanks.

    September 18, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Reply
  11. jim anthony

    Please stay out of my restaurant you ignorant moron. But then again come on in and let me serve you a nice raw burger so that you will croak and I won't have to worry about you calling your lawyer.

    September 18, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      Hey "Jim"... why don't you do us all a favor and actually name "your restaurant"...

      September 19, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  12. Schmarticle

    Not a bad read, but regarding number 5 the customer rarely knows what's best for them. Depending on the quality of the burger patty, eating it medium-rare might make you incredibly sick. Only a restaurant with high quality meat should serve a burger on the rare side. Anyone stupid enough to ask for a rare burger from an unknown source probably stole the money they plan to pay for it with.

    September 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  13. I. Ray Janus

    As a patron of eating establishments (at many levels) in a number of countries, I really enjoy cultural differences and local customs in food. A juicy hot dog from Hotdog Tommy's is as much of a joy as fois gras on the Left Bank, if each is prepared with quality ingredients and care. Nevertheless, why do servers in chain or similar level restaurants often refrain from mentioning the prices of specials they are reciting? I'm not talking haute cuisine places here. Likewise, why do menus in popular chains et al list prices of all menu items EXCEPT drinks, especially cocktails, which are mentioned by name and described therein at great length? Even worse, when questioned about this, the server invariably " has to check with the bartender". Are these prices secret? Changeable by the hour? If very high end restaurants can include expensive prices on their wine lists, why can't an ordinary chain or its ilk reveal prices of drinks in print? By the way, we are almost always very pleasant diners and good tippers, so could anyone solve this mystery???

    September 18, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  14. Bill

    This article does not apply to me, all I eat in are diners, drive-ins and dives.

    September 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  15. Northeast

    First red flag is butter...if you have to unwrap your butter, bad sign. Warm bread and soft butter is a must.

    September 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • Ruderalis

      It's also much better when they cook pot into the butter.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  16. yourmom

    You people are all ridiculous and selfish. I can tell you that while these things may make in what you enjoy in a restaurant, a good restaurant is measured in many ways that it is obvious none of you have ever heard of. Sanitation, food quality, guest service, knowledge, community outreach, management and staff happiness, profitability, timeliness, trustworthiness, b2b relationships, etc. The things that make a good restaurant are many. And please stop with the effing butter....have you even been to a restaurant that doesn't bombard you with bread and butter before you even get a chance to look at the offerings that you can't make at home by your lonesome for a buck...try it. Maybe the lack of distractions will help you focus on what really make a restaurant great. Also, don't complain when your water is "overfilled" since you would be the first to complain when it lowered slightly below half full. Why don't you just go ahead and wave off the pouring of the wine by your server to know it all. I'm sure what you are talking about it so top secret that a lowly server is unfit to hear. Keep eating out. Try better places. We love you all!

    September 18, 2011 at 6:02 am | Reply
  17. Johnny

    Asian B-rated restaurants always taste better!

    September 18, 2011 at 5:51 am | Reply
    • Ruderalis

      Yes, their cat is much better than a C restaurant.

      September 18, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  18. miscreantsall

    Clean (and I mean clean) non smelly restrooms!!!

    The food may be awesome…….the service perfect………etc…………..IF THE RESTROOMS ARE NOT IMPECCABLE…………………..RUNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN !!!!!!!

    September 18, 2011 at 2:48 am | Reply
    • Ruderalis

      The ones I go to have a little hole in the wall of the restroom. What is that for?

      September 18, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  19. Kathy

    The sign(s) of a good restaurant:

    1. a salad that is prepared after you ordered it, not pulled out of a fridge where it's been sitting for hours

    2. at least one house salad dressing that is freshly prepared and not out of a bottle (which the wait staff can recommend)

    3. fresh baked bread and soft butter

    4. clean, spot free eating utensils and (if your sitting by a window) dust and fly free sills and blinds

    September 17, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  20. Sharp

    I hate to be rushed when I eat. It causes indigestion & lessens enjoyment of truly good food & good company with your friends. Turnover be da%#ed. If I wanted drive thru I would go to a fast food place. I wouldn't buy McDonald's food for my dog. Any number of small independent restaurants only cost a couple dollars more than a fast food palace anyway. It is only laziness not to seek one out. ANY signs of uncleanliness & I do an about face & leave. I HATE greasy or salty food. Unless the service is bad I am never stingy about tipping. If you can afford to eat out you can afford a decent tip.

    September 17, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  21. Calabrese

    Gary Danko in SF is the real deal. Great food and excellent service. I enjoyed my entire experience and left feeling like they considered me a rock star.

    September 17, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
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