Ambiance: Shouting from the kitchen; fights in the dining room
Certain restaurant-themed reality shows aside (we’re not mentioning names, Gordon Ramsay), kitchen staff should work in a state of harmony, not combat. If you hear yelling from the kitchen — or witness strife between servers or the manager and the staff in the dining room — get out if you can. Rancor never brings anything good to the table.
Ambiance: Dirty bathrooms
There’s nothing like a poorly lit bathroom with wet floors and counters or overflowing trash cans to break the spell of an otherwise enjoyable dining experience. Of course, restaurants that provide enjoyable dining experiences rarely have dirty bathrooms — so when you find one, you’re probably in the wrong kind of place.
Food: Silly menu names
Unless you’re in a theme restaurant geared more towards entertaining the kids than providing a good culinary experience, menus are no place for silly puns or baby talk. It’s guacamole, not “Guac Your World.” And entree categories are beef and chicken, not “Moo Moo” and “Cluck Cluck.” (It is also good practice to be suspicious of restaurants whose menus claim that a certain dish is prepared “according to the chef’s whim.” You want skill and consistency from your chef, not whimsy.)
Food: Very long menu
There are diner menus that go on for pages, offering all-day breakfasts, sandwiches, burgers, salads, Greek or Italian specialties, all-American entrees, and more, and they somehow seem to mostly deliver. But then they’re almost certainly using canned, frozen, and/or premade ingredients and the culinary quality isn’t high, nor is it expected to be. When a supposedly serious restaurant menu offers too many choices, though, it’s almost always a bad sign.
Bear in mind that what constitutes “too many” might depend on the kind of cuisine. Chinese or Italian restaurants, for example, might be able to offer scores of dishes because they combine the same ingredients in numerous ways. A French restaurant or steakhouse with 30 appetizers and a like number of main dishes and desserts is another story.
Food: Too many cuisines offered
There are legitimate reasons for some restaurants to mix cuisines: Sushi bars are often found in Korean restaurants because Koreans eat a lot of sushi; French bistros sometimes offer couscous and other Moroccan fare because their owners lived in Morocco; Chinese-Cuban and Chinese-Indian are legitimate cross-cultural cooking traditions. But a menu that proposes, for example, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Malaysian — or Cajun, Mexican, Italian, and American — dishes all at once probably doesn’t do any of them well.