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How Do You 'Read' A Restaurant?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 11, 2013 8:20PM

The Sandwich board of bad signs. Via Bon Appetit/Erik S. Peterson, with permission.

First impressions are the most important, so they say, and restaurants are no exception. A column in Bon Appetit by former Time Out Chicago dining critic Julia Kramer (New York may have her body, but we still have her soul) got us thinking: what are the little things that you see at a restaurant that instantly make or break it?

Kramer and Restaurant Editor Andrew Knowlton came up with some great ones. They include fonts, sandwich boards, Yelp stickers in the window, and more. Since we think about restaurants just about 24 hours a day, they got us thinking about are our little quirks and peccadilloes. How do we "read" restaurants? The Chicagoist staff chimes in with their go-to signs.

Chuck: If you have a Groupon for it, chances are it's a bad restaurant.

Anthony: If the wine list has a bunch of low priced wines ($20-30) and then one INSANELY expensive bottle of Dom, it's going to be a bad restaurant.

Jim: If they tell you at the door there's a 45-minute to an hour wait for a table unless you want to sit outside on their patio on a sweltering hot day and you say, "No that's cool, we'll wait" and the hostess rolls her eyes and then seats you five minutes later at a table inside then that's probably a bad sign of things to come. Not that I have any recent specific experience in mind...

Paul: When a restaurant calls itself "Farm to Table", my bullshit detector goes on high alert. Especially if they say they are "Farm to Table" and then don't list the farms they work with. Paul Kahan and Paul Virant can call themselves "Farm to Table" chefs but they don't (even though they list the farms they work with on menus). To them, it isn't a fad or a way to bring people in, they work directly with farms to get the freshest, in-season ingredients.

Kevin: When I first started waiting tables in college (Olive Garden, baby!) the thing they beat into our heads was that people judge the place by the condition of the restrooms. That's stuck with me for years.

Chuck: If a restaurant brags about a burger being served on a pretzel roll, that raises my antennae and I wonder if they considered the rest of the dish instead of chasing a trend.

Rob Christopher: If you order a martini, and the waiter asks which type of gin you prefer, it's a good sign. If they carry Plymouth or Bluecoat, it's an even better sign. Conversely, if they don't ask...

Anthony: If a waiter asks you what type of water you want and then seems disappointed when you don't order a $7 bottle of panna, leave immediately.

Samantha: When a menu reads "No substitutions," I read "inconsiderate egomaniac" and walk out. I don't need your eyerolls because I need a side salad in lieu of fries and my burger served without a bun.

Jim: If there's a picture of Frank Sinatra eating there on the restaurant's wall then I know it's a winner.

Chuck: When a restaurant has a faded photo of Steve Dolinsky in the window, be careful.

Anthony: If a restaurant lets you pick your own salad dressing (and has more than four options), it's 4:1 odds that your salad will be mediocre and from a bag.

Melissa: If it has one of those signs about unattended children being given espresso and a puppy, it's probably not going to have good coffee. Alternatively, if it serves cold drinks in Mason jars, it's usually a winner.

Katie: When a restaurant places a big sign somewhere claiming it was "Voted #1 ribs/pizza/wings/etc. in Chicago!" but doesn't say by whom, be cautious. Actually, if a place has big signs inside advertising anything just be generally cautious.

Rob C.: If the place looks empty, but the hostess asks if you have a reservation and then pretends to check her computer for "availability," it's a bad sign.

Michelle: If the wait staff wears FLAIR, it's probably not going to be a winner (unless you're really jonesing for frozen food dropped in a fryer).

Tony: Good sign - You're displeased with a dish and the waiter offers to bring you something else, without making you feel put out. I dig that. Bad sign: Wait staff hovering and overly eager to get you up out of there so they can turn over the table. I'll leave when I'm ready, but I'll tip you well for your trouble (and even more if are cute and flirty. Just Kidding. Kind of.)

Benjy: When restaurants ask if you've dined with them before like eating a meal is rocket science... they take themselves and their "concept" too seriously.

What are some of the signals that help you "read" a restaurant?