Food: Specials that aren’t seasonal (or special)
It’s a frigid January and one of the appetizer specials is an heirloom tomato salad. It’s September and the menu proposes a rack of “spring lamb.” It’s any time of year and the special of the day is a cheeseburger…If a restaurant goes to the trouble of showcasing particular ingredients, they should be appropriate to the time of year, and a dish called out as a special should be, well, special. Chefs who don’t observe these conventions are probably chefs who aren’t truly invested in their jobs.
Service: No greeting (or an unfriendly one)
Unless you’re at a casual restaurant where a sign (or a passing server) invites you to seat yourself, someone should greet you, preferably warmly, when you walk into a place. A host might be temporarily away from the front while seating other guests, but the absence should be brief. If you have to stand around waiting to be noticed for more than a minute or two — or if the host treats you like an annoyance rather than a valued customer — don’t expect much from the rest of your dining experience.
Service: Reservation not honored on time
More and more restaurants these days observe a no-reservations policy. In establishments like that, you take your chances and it’s not unreasonable to be asked to wait 30 minutes or an hour or even longer. If the place takes reservations, however, and you make one and then arrive on time, it’s reasonable to expect to be seated more or less at the appointed hour. Ten or 15 minutes’ grace period while you have a drink at the bar? Sure. An hour or more because management didn’t know how to pace their tables? Sorry, gotta go.
Service: Unreasonably long wait for service
You’re shown to your table and then…forgotten. If you’re lucky, a busser might pour you some water, but your server is busy elsewhere and the manager is either dealing with some other issue or simply out to lunch (even if it’s dinnertime). There you sit with no drinks, no menu, no acknowledgement of your presence. Sure, restaurants get very busy, especially at prime eating hours (generally about noon to 2 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m., though this varies according to the location and the restaurant), but five or ten minutes of sitting and talking amongst yourselves is more than enough.
Service: Uncleared tables
If the empty tables around you are still crowded with dirty dishes and glasses — or if you’re finished what’s on your own table and the no-longer-Instagrammable plates are just sitting there, the traces of your meal congealing — you’re almost certainly in a restaurant where nobody is paying attention, which is to say a restaurant you probably never need to visit again.