Dining out should be relaxing, but when you put your food prep in someone else’s hands, it’s like playing a game of Russian roulette.
Luckily, there are some clues to look for if you want to know whether you’ll walk away from your meal feeling satisfied, or a few hours away from hugging the toilet and vowing never to eat mussels at a buffet again.
Employees sneezing, sniffling, and coughing are a major red flag. One of Chipotle’s recent scandals occurred when an employee that had contracted norovirus was working behind the line, and it’s no wonder. Germs from an ill worker can easily find their way into your food when they sneeze, cough, or absentmindedly touch their face or mouth before handling food. If there’s a visibly ill employee working, your best best is to find another place to eat.
Sure, a piece of hair in your food won’t kill you, but if employees are eschewing this basic food safety rule, what else aren’t they doing? This mostly applies to workers who are handling your food, not so much the wait staff.
If your cashier is also the person who prepared your food, be wary. Did they put on new gloves or wash their hands before preparing your food? If not, any bacteria or other germs that they come in contact with when handling money and touching the cash register probably made its way into your food.
The same applies for other maintenance and cleaning tasks. Employees should wash their hands or don a new pair of gloves after taking out the trash, wiping down tables, or doing anything that isn’t making food.
See an employee sneaking a bite of food while preparing yours? That’s a bad sign. Any bacteria or germs on their mouth could be transferred to their fingers, which are going right back down to touch the food that will eventually make it to your plate.
I probably don’t need to tell you that seeing mice, rats, and roaches in a restaurant are a terrible sign. Keep in mind that these animals hate humans and are usually nocturnal – if they’re bold enough to come out in daylight or while customers are in the restaurant, the problem is probably really bad.
Flies aren’t an immediate “get out NOW” – especially in the warmer months, they can come in and out of the door with the customers. But if you notice a crowed of winged vermin hovering over trash cans, tables, busing stations or behind the line, you may be better off finding a different place to eat.
The restaurant knows you’re going to see the restroom, so if they can’t be bothered to keep it clean, what do you think is going on behind the scenes?
A little clutter isn’t bad, but overflowing trash bins, sticky floors, and a less-than-sparkling toilet and sink are warning signs. And, keep in mind, the people preparing your food are likely using the same bathroom – meaning any of the mystery goo they step on in the bathroom is likely going to be tracked into the kitchen, too.
If you can see pots and pans balanced precariously, chopped vegetables, meat or seafood left out at room temperature on the counter, and overly full trash bins, it could be a bad sign.
Cleanliness is usually the first thing chefs and cooks are taught – it’s the foundation of safe food preparation. If things look visibly out of hand, you might want to reconsider your dining choice.
A parking lot full of litter is mighty intriguing to rats, mice, roaches, and other vermin. It also doesn’t bode well for how capable the restaurant is of maintaining its facilities. Considering that for many, the parking lot is the first impression one gets of a restaurant, it should at the very least not be covered in garbage.
Especially when you’re at a buffet, you should be wary if your food is served at the incorrect temperature. Warm sushi and room temperature crab legs aren’t just unappetizing – they could send you to the hospital.
At a sit-down restaurant, soggy, warm salads are also a red flag. Vegetables and greens are just as likely to harbor bacteria as meat and dairy products, so stay vigilant.
Keep an eye out for these restaurant red flags the next time you dine out. You could save yourself from an unwanted reign upon the porcelain throne, or worse.
Justina Huddleston is a food writer living in Los Angeles. When she's not writing for Menuism or SheKnows, she spends her time in the kitchen creating both virtuous and decidedly junky vegan food. Buffalo chickpea pizza, anyone? She's also been known to eat a plain block of tofu or beans straight out of the can for lunch, but somehow those culinary adventures don't make it to her Instagram. You can follow Justina on Twitter or see what's cooking in her kitchen on her blog A Life of Little Pleasures.