30 Red Flags You Should Look Out For When You Go Out To Eat, According to Chefs

Going out to eat is often a beautiful experience. You don’t have to cook or clean up after yourself, you can usually try something new that you normally wouldn’t prepare for yourself, and you get to relax a little bit. Plus, the food should (hopefully) taste awesome! These are all the things that are great about going out to eat… if the restaurant you’re eating at is on top of it, of course. If it’s not so great, then, well, things can go south fast, and you’ll end up wishing you just stayed at home.

But how do you really know if a restaurant is good or bad? Sure, you can read plenty of reviews online and get a sense of what other people are saying, but what if you don’t have time to do that before you step inside? How do you know if a restaurant is great or not just by looking at?

There’s no better person to answer that question than a professional chef, who spends basically all their time in restaurants.

In a recent Reddit thread, chefs revealed the red flags you need to look out for when you go out to eat, so you can have the best experience possible. Here are the most important ones:

1. A seafood restaurant smells like fish.

You might think that it should be natural for a seafood restaurant to smell like fish, since that’s what they’re selling.

But actually, fish that is fresh and okay to eat should never smell overly fishy — if it does, that’s an indication that it’s gone or going bad.

User XxcontaminatexX said, “The first thing they told us in culinary school when you’re learning the basic rules for food safety standards is if you enter a seafood restaurant and smell fish, leave.”

User goBear84 added,

“I always say, if you enter a seafood shop or restaurant, it should smell like the ocean.”

“Mostly like fresh air and saltwater. That means everything is fresh. If it smells like fish, it starts to become bad and if it starts, it is gonna be bad very fast!”

2. The staff seems like they hate their job.

You can tell a lot about the quality of a restaurant based on the attitude of their staff — not just chefs, but also servers, hostesses, and bartenders. User robotran said,

“The biggest thing to keep an eye on though imo is the staff.”

“If there’s pissed off people, get out as fast as you can obviously. If everyone is kinda apathetic and not talking to each other much, get out.”

“That’s also a sh*tty environment, everyone is probably really passive aggressive, and that’s going to show.”

In other words, a happy staff means a happy restaurant, which means a happy customer.

3. The restaurant has a gigantic menu.

You know when a restaurant menu is more like a novel than just a few choice selections? Yeah… that’s not a great sign. User fancyfrenchtoilet said,

“If a restaurant has a one-page menu, that’s usually a pretty good sign, it means their line cooks have  become specialists and can usually nail all the dishes listed.”

“Conversely, if a restaurant has a giant, multi-page menu that’s a gigantic red flag. The longer the menu the better the odds that you’re paying to eat a boiled bag frozen meal.”

4. There’s carpet on the floor.

Looking for an ultra clean restaurant? Opt for one that doesn’t have carpeting, which can get really dirty, really easy in that type of environment. User eyebrowshampoo said,

“Yeah it’s quieter and doesn’t get slick, but it is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen.”

I saw them pull it up when they remodeled (and put in more carpet).

Vacuuming only goes so far in a restaurant and I know they never, ever shampoo it.” So if you see carpet — especially carpet that looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned since the restaurant’s opening — make sure you think twice.

5. The employees argue with you if you try to send food back.

Sometimes you order food at a restaurant and it doesn’t come out cooked exactly how you want it — like steak or a burger. If the waiter doesn’t immediately bring it back to get it cooked the correct way, that’s not a great sign. Reddit user A_pencil_artist explained,

“If employees try to argue with you about food quality in order to dissuade you from sending something under cooked back, just leave.”

“It means they have a cook who can’t take criticism and your chances at getting a sneezer are greatly increased.” Yikes!

6. The menu includes random photos.

User PanicAtTheMetro said one red flag is, “Pictures of food on the menu that clearly aren’t from the restaurant.” Pictures of the food on a menu generally aren’t associated with more high-end restaurants to begin with, so if it seems they’re using stock photos, that’s even worse.

7. The server doesn’t seem enthusiastic about a dish you’re asking about.

If you’re unsure on whether to order something or not, you might ask your server for their opinion. Pay attention to their response. User kjimbro said, “I’ve worked in restaurants for over a decade. A couple years in the kitchen and the rest as FOH.”

“If your server’s response to ‘how is the [item]’ seems disingenuous, that’s a big red flag.”

“We know what goes on in the kitchen, we know the complaints, and we know which items to stress over when we deliver them. Servers who pause or seem uncomfortable with that question generally equates to a menu full of stuff we wouldn’t eat even as a free shift meal.”

Kjmbro adds that it’s good if you notice staff eating at the restaurant after their shift is over.

Yes, they probably get a sweet discount, but they’re still spending their money there at the end of the day.

8. Your food comes out really quickly (even if it’s quiet).

A restaurant experience shouldn’t be incredibly fast. If it is, that means your food isn’t that fresh, even if it’s a quiet, slow night. User CrossFox42 said, “Cook at a fancy casual fine dining restaurant here. If your food is out impossibly fast, it’s probably something to be concerned about.”

“I’m talking ordering an entree and it’s out in like 10 minutes.”

“This usually means it’s already been cooked and they just have to reheat it.” As for something simple like a salad, CrossFox42 states that it shouldn’t take a lot of time to create, meaning that your greens should still taste fresh by the time they get to you. If they’re instead soggy and gross, then you know they’ve been sitting out.

9. The menus are very dirty.

Really clean restaurants keep pretty much everything clean — they’re on top of it all. User SoMuchBsHere said a red flag is,

“When the menus are super dirty and never cleaned, that means everything is super dirty and never cleaned.”

Pay attention to the little things: a restaurant that genuinely cares about hygiene will keep everything clean.

10. There’s no wait on a weekend night.

No one likes to sit around waiting an hour for a table.

But at the same time, a long wait is often a sign that a restaurant is good, because a lot of people want to eat there.

User newgrl said, “Not a chef… front of the house. When my boss (the owner) used to host and people would complain to her about the hour wait on Saturday night at 7 p.m. and then threaten to leave, she would tell them, ‘If the restaurant you choose does not have a wait on a Saturday night, you may not want to eat there.'” It’s true!

11. The presentation of the food isn’t clean.

Your plates don’t need to look like Instagram works of art, but they should be clean and well put-together, at least. That’s a sign that the chefs care about what they’re doing. User oliviabitchy said, “Waitress here!”

“If you see any food coming out that’s messy and there’s sauce all over the rim of the plate, etc, it’s likely to mean that the chefs aren’t putting much effort into their meals and they therefore will not be very good.”

“All the chefs at my work find it SO important that everything is presented well and I agree, so if they miss something I’ll check the plates and point it out which they always appreciate as it reflects well on them.”

Again, though presentation isn’t everything, it should still be neat and clean, since that shows that the staff cares about the food they’re giving you.

12. The owner is arguing with a reviewer online.

If you start your investigation by reading reviews online, check to see if the owner of the place replies to reviews, especially negative ones. A reply shows they’re invested in hearing what others have to say.

And if they start arguing with the reviewer that means they probably aren’t a great manager or owner, which can extend to the quality of the restaurant.

User Tickle_bottom said, “Owners that are willing to yell at people who are spending their money are likely to treat their staff the same or worse.”

“Meaning their employees are either pissed, or the turnover is high and no one is trained well.”

So next time you’re on Yelp, take a look at the bad reviewers and see if there are any shady replies.

13. The restaurant smells like grease.

You never want to walk into a restaurant and smell something bad… especially if that’s grease. User FoxZach63 said, “This is late but 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.”

“We clean some places where grease drips off the hoods onto cooking surfaces.” Yuck! And if there’s a problem with their exhaust system, that means you could be breathing in some not-so-clean air.

14. The staff isn’t very presentable.

Servers, hosts, bartenders, and anyone in the front of house at a restaurant should always look clean and put together. If they’re a total mess, that doesn’t say a lot of good things about the restaurant. User fightforeverguardian said,

“I’m a chef also! I always look at the cleanliness of the staff.”

“Everyone in the place (FOH [front of house] and BOH [back of house]) should know the guidelines for staff cleanliness (jewelry that can be worn, how long facial hair can be before needing a beard guard, fingernails length, etc.).” You can to trust that the person handling your food cares about their job, and a neat appearance can be indicative of that.

15. Your meat has been cut open.

If you order meat, like steak, it shouldn’t arrive to your table with a cut in it. user Cananbaum explains, “If your protein (chicken, steak, burger) is cut open it means the chef is inexperienced and they were checking for doneness via that method.” A really good chef will know how well it’s cooked without having to slice it apart.

16. Normally expensive food is surprisingly cheap.

It’s great to get good deals on food when you go out to eat. But normally, expensive food is always going to be pricey. User lovelypantso said,

“If it’s too good to be true, it’s probably not true.”

“If you see an exceptionally affordable menu with certain expensive or rare varieties of foods for affordable prices, chances are your ‘king’ salmon, ‘bluefin’ tuna, or ‘organic grassfed’ beef is just regular salmon, tuna, or conventional beef.” As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. 

17. The server doesn’t know where their seafood is from.

In a great restaurant, servers will be well-versed on the food they’re serving, and will be able to answer questions about where seafood is from with no problem. User heroesforsale says, “Ask where your oysters come from. If they don’t know, you don’t want them. Works for most seafood.”

18. The restaurant is pretty empty.

It sounds obvious, but it’s true. If the restaurant is in a busy area and, as user AAiBee said, it’s unusually empty, then it’s probably not that great. That means that locals aren’t going in there, which is never a good sign… and it probably means there are bad reviews out there as well.

19. You can’t see in the kitchen at all.

This one is more of a green flag, but it’s worth pointing out. User motomouth3 said, “Former pizza chef here… More of a green flag than a red. But if the kitchen has large windows you can see in, or open style cooking.

“Usually means everyone is proud to be on display to the public and are not microwaving every meal.”

Though this isn’t essential for every restaurant kitchen, it is good to keep in mind next time you go out to eat.

21. Seeing fruit flies.

You, obviously, know if after entering a restaurant and see any kind of bug, you should turn around. But, something as harmless as a fly, might not send off any red flags because they’re pretty common in buildings and outside.

A restaurant, however, shouldn’t have them.

“Fruit flies are an indication of a dirty kitchen,” one user wrote.

Even though it might not always be the establishment’s fault, once the flies are inside, they can lay eggs that hatch, which go where food and water are left. A pest control employee shared his thoughts saying,

“If the food is not cleaned up properly, (dirty), after a few days, it starts giving off a vinegar smell. (Fruit flies are called vinegar flies in the pest control business).”

“I can guarantee that if you have fruit flies, I can show you where your cleaning protocol is breaking down,” the user warned.

22. Shouting.

Beside not wanting to dine in the middle of a shouting match, this one is pretty blatant sign of disorganization. This chef, however, says loud conversations aren’t always bad.

“We spend our shifts ripping on each other and generally talking shit, but all in good fun.”

“Customers seem to get a kick out of how we all interact, like a family. We bicker, talk crap, yell sometimes. But at the end of the day we love each other and run a great kitchen,” atx00 wrote.

Regardless, you’ve been warned.

23. Soda machines.

Sigh. They say the things we love hurt us the most. While we’d like to cover our eyes and scroll over this one, the truth is ice machines are notoriously dirty and go unwashed.

“I have a family member who’s worked in multiple different restaurants, and they always advise me never to get drinks with ice because too many places don’t keep their ice machines cleaned because it’s so often overlooked compared to other kitchen equipment,” ‘wrote AllyMarie93.

Another user, who works as a server, shared a disturbing visual:

“Ran a kitchen. Can confirm. When I started they only cleaned the ice machine and soda machine when black stuff was in the mountain dew. While I was there, it was biweekly for the ice machine and nightly for the soda machine.”

24. If there are different cuisines on the same menu.

This is a fact. One user pointed out, “I’m suspicious of Japanese/Thai restaurants.”

“I don’t know why people think those two cuisines go together, they’re totally different.”

It’s true. This is much different than a fusion restaurant, designed to incorporate two different cultures. If it isn’t planned or with a purpose, they’re most likely just lumping together an array of things and crossing their fingers for the best.

25. If you see this familiar face.

“If you walk into a restaurant and hear Gordon Ramsay yelling at the staff you probably want to leave.”

“Unless it’s one of Gordon’s restaurants of course,” one user joked, referencing his hit show Kitchen Nightmares.

While seeing the famous chef cuss out employees and try to fix some of the worst restaurants in the country is fun on TV, we’d definitely pass on an up close look.

26. Buffet and salad bars.

Despite being a staple in many restaurants across America, it is a universal truth, they’re not as fresh as you would hope.

“A lot of the time it is the same stuff that just gets refilled over and over. Super gross,” hugsfrombugs advised. Not to mention the germy hands that touch the serving utensils.

27. A sign saying “Under New Management!”

This means the business has previously flopped, according to one Reddit user.

“It means the business has already failed (at least) once and either a new owner has come in thinking they’ll be able to cut corners better than the last owner, or it’s the same owner trying to save face by saying someone new is in charge when there isn’t,” RhodyChief wrote.

28. Misspellings aren’t careless.

Typos are apparently a clever way for restaurants to get away with not serving what they say they’re serving.

Splinkyyy revealed, “In culinary school, every single chef instructor says the same thing: If it’s misspelled on the menu, that’s on purpose.”

Why? “It’s so they don’t have to sell you the real thing. A prime example is ‘krab cakes,” the user explains.

29. Dust

Yuck. This may seem obvious, but can easily be overlooked.

And honestly, this seems like a fair way to access the cleanliness of  a restaurant.

Biology is destiny warned, “I look for dust. Dust on the ceiling tiles or in the air-conditioning vents. I also have a habit of running my finger along chair frames after I sit down to check for dust.”

30. They take your water glass

Who could have guessed?

CausticMoose points out, “If a pitcher of water touches your glass, it has also touched everyone else’s glass. Also, if you can’t see them pour your water, there’s something wrong.”

Uh, all we want to know is what they’re filling it up with… or what they store their water in.

Any red flags we forgot?

Let us know! We want to know any warnings you have to tip off a potentially rotten experience.