Some Will Disgust You
Eating out means trusting strangers to prepare and handle your food. Usually that trust is well-placed—but at times, the hectic pace and financial pressures facing restaurants result in corners being cut in ways that could jeopardize your enjoyment of the meal…or even jeopardize your health. Bottom Line Personal asked a veteran waiter to share what restaurants don’t want you to know…
Food Quality and Safety
Seafood stew, soup and pasta “specials” often feature fish that’s too old to serve any other way. Restaurants do not like to throw away expensive ingredients. When seafood is no longer fresh enough to serve on its own, it might be chopped up and served in a stew, soup or pasta dish, where sauces and other bold flavors can be used to hide its age. This can happen with meat and poultry, too, but it’s most common with seafood, which has an especially short shelf life.
Tip from the waiter: It’s generally OK to order a seafood stew, soup or pasta dish if it is on the regular menu. But when these are listed as specials, the odds are high that the restaurant is trying to sell past-its-prime seafood.
Restaurant menus rarely are cleaned. Responsible restaurants take cleanliness very seriously. Almost everything in the kitchen and dining room is cleaned regularly—except the menus. At most restaurants, menus are rarely, if ever, wiped down, even though they are handled by many people and occasionally dropped on the floor.
Tip from the waiter: Wash your hands after you’ve ordered and handed your menu back to the waiter.
Complimentary bread or chips might have been served to other tables before yours. A Mexican restaurant in Michigan recently received negative press when it was caught taking chips and salsa that were not consumed at one table and serving them to a second table. That restaurant is far from alone—it is not uncommon for uneaten slices of complimentary bread to find their way onto multiple tables rather than get thrown away. And even restaurants that hold themselves to a very high standard usually send out the butter packages that accompany bread to table after table until they are used.
Tip from the waiter: It might be worth skipping complimentary premeal items such as bread and chips unless the restaurant has an open area where you can watch these items being prepared specifically for you.
The week following an extended power failure might be the wrong time to eat out. Cash-strapped restaurants often cannot afford to throw away everything that was in their fridges and freezers after power outages, so ingredients may no longer be as fresh as they should be.
Tip from the waiter: If you want to eat out following a long power failure, choose a restaurant in a neighboring area that did not lose its power.
You might not want to eat your leftovers if you saw how they were put into to-go containers. This task might be delegated to a busboy who has little training in hygienic food handling…or it might be done by a harried server who uses the same spoon to transfer multiple customers’ partially eaten meals.
Tip from the waiter: Ask your server to bring to-go containers to your table, and then transfer your leftovers yourself.
Your dessert might not be fresh even if the menu says desserts are “made fresh in house every day.” Typically this means that one or two of the dessert options are made fresh each day, while others remain from earlier days.
Tip from the waiter: Before choosing a dessert, ask your server which desserts were made that day. Be leery of any dessert that features “chocolate crumble” or “chocolate crunchies” sprinkled on top. That chocolate topping might have been made by breaking apart stale chocolate cake, cookies or brownies that didn’t sell in their original form.
Billing and Service
Billing mistakes are common—and rarely spotted. Servers are responsible for multiple tables at the same time—and billing mistakes are inevitable. But patrons rarely catch the mistakes, in part because roughly half of all restaurant customers do not bother to check their bills at all.
Tip from the waiter: If you do not want to take the time to check your bill closely, at least do a quick count to confirm that there are not more drinks, appetizers or entrées listed than you ordered. If at lunch, also make sure that you were charged lunch prices and not dinner prices for entrées, a particularly common billing error.
The last tables seated often receive less-than-stellar service—but you can be treated better. If you walk into a restaurant shortly before its closing time, there’s a good chance that both your server and the kitchen staff will be more focused on getting you out the door than on providing an enjoyable meal.
Tip from the waiter: Say something that sends a message to your server that you understand time is an issue, such as, “Don’t worry, we won’t order dessert”…and/or, “What can the kitchen prepare quickly?” This shows respect for the restaurant employees’ priorities, greatly increasing the odds that they will show you respect in the form of a quality dining experience.
Chefs are sick of the gluten-free trend. Restaurant employees usually are sympathetic when customers must make special requests because of allergies or other serious health concerns—but they hate it when they have to adjust dishes for customers who seem to be jumping on dietary fads. Gluten-free is the most prominent dietary fad at the moment, so servers and chefs might label you an annoyance if you ask to have a dish modified for a gluten-free diet—which could lead to a subpar dining experience.
Tip from the waiter: If you truly cannot consume gluten for health reasons—for example, you have celiac disease—preface your order with words to the effect of, “I know you have to deal with a lot of gluten-free requests these days, but I really am gluten-intolerant.”
Wine sold by the glass could come from a bottle that has been open for days. It even could come from a bottle that was originally ordered by another patron but rejected because that customer didn’t like it.
Tip from the waiter: Order wine by the bottle, not by the glass, when possible. If you want only a single glass, boost the odds that it was opened recently by choosing something that’s likely to be ordered often, such as the “house wine.”
Your regular coffee actually might be decaf if closing time is near. The regular coffeepot often is one of the first things emptied and cleaned by the restaurant staff at the end of the day. If you order a regular coffee after this has occurred, there’s a good chance that you’ll be given decaf with no mention of the substitution. (The reverse—receiving regular after ordering decaf—is much less common in well-run restaurants because the staff would not want to risk giving caffeine to a customer who, for example, has a heart condition.)
Tip from the waiter: If you really need a cup of regular coffee after a restaurant meal that concludes late in the evening—for example, if you’re feeling drowsy and need to drive home—explain that to your waiter. He may be able to have a cup of regular coffee made for you. Or order cappuccino, which is typically made in an espresso machine one cup at a time.
Your water might not be as pure as you are told. Some restaurants serve only filtered water…and some patrons pay extra for bottled water. But if there is ice in the water, that ice is almost certainly made from unfiltered tap water. Restaurant ice makers rarely have filters.
Tip from the waiter: If water purity is important to you, skip the ice.
Drink garnishes sometimes are germy or old. That lemon or lime slice in your drink might have been cut hours earlier and then left to sit in an open, unrefrigerated container where numerous restaurant employees pick out pieces with their bare hands. Restaurants may have policies requiring the use of tongs for grabbing these garnishes, but rushed servers and bartenders frequently skip that.
Tip from the waiter: Tell your server to “hold the lemon” when you order a drink.