A Culinary Jewel or Junk?

You need not be Sherlock Holmes or possess any special investigative powers to identify a really bad restaurant. They virtually announce themselves from first contact and follow through to the presentation of the bill. Their flaws are apparent.

First tell: Make a reservation, even if you don’t need one, even if you’re going to a restaurant on a rainy Tuesday night and will be the only people in the dining room with one. There is no better way to evaluate a restaurant before you get there than taking note of how they handle your request. If they don’t know what they’re doing, if they can’t get your reservation straight, if they sound like they’re a messy, disorganized operation, they probably are.
If they are careless and unconcerned about your reservation, their food and service will probably reflect those characteristics as well.

If any of the following happen to you, reconsider:

• You call and are put on hold, sometimes forever with nobody
ever answering.
• Although the restaurant is open, your call is taken by an
answering machine. You might or might not get a return call.
• Your call for a reservation is taken by someone who asks you
to call back at another time.
• The person who answers can’t find the reservation book
therefore is unable to record your request.
• Your reservation is taken by a curt, cold, unfriendly person
who does not thank you for calling.
• Your reservation is taken by someone who forgets to ask your
name, time of arrival or number of people in your party.

These things rarely happen at good restaurants whose reservationists are pleasant, informed and appreciative, which brings us to your arrival at the restaurant. In that last instance, you may well be told they have no record of a reservation in your name—­worse yet they have no tables available.

Another bad omen is the absence of a greeter, which is somebody at the entrance to the dining room to welcome and seat you. Instead you are left standing and unacknowledged as members of the waitstaff scurry by without even a nod in your direction.

Once (finally) seated, the first morsel, the first impression of the restaurant’s food comes when the breadbasket arrives. If it contains only cottony, mass-produced bread and rolls from a commercial bakery rather than diverse, interesting ones from makers that take pride in their customized products, you are probably in for a long, lackluster night. Accompanying brick-hard butter that defies powerful fork thrusts is another no no. The two butter patties wrapped in foil are fine for a diner, but another bad sign at a supposedly quality restaurant.

If you need to use the facilities before eating only to find them dirty and messy, imagine what the kitchen looks like. Yes, there is a correlation between the two.

Now we are ready to eat, but there is no water in the glasses or offer to fill them. A look at the menu discloses that at a time when there are entirely gluten-free restaurants, when even baseball stadiums offer gluten-free food stands, there is not a single gluten-free dish listed. That tells us that the ownership and/or kitchen either isn’t “with it” or doesn’t care. There’s also no salt or pepper on the table. No matter how gifted the chef, no one can possibly season every dish correctly for every diner. Taste varies greatly from person to person. That’s why these condiments should be on every table without diners having to ask for them.

Speaking of being forced to ask for something that should be automatic. If the waiter who recites the nightly specials fails to mention their prices, the restaurant forces diners to question how much each one costs. Good restaurants know that it is their responsibility to give this necessary information to their patrons without making them ask for it. Bad restaurants don’t.

It shouldn’t be difficult for a trained waitstaff to know who ordered each dish and deliver it to the proper person. So if dishes have to be auctioned off, as in “Who ordered the turnips?” you know you’re not dealing with polished professionals. Yet another negative indication comes when busboys clear plates while one or more diners at the table are still eating, thereby putting at least subtle pressure on them to eat faster and to finish.

Speaking of plates, warm or even hot ones have their place, but that place is not when they contain fish, especially delicate, thin, flaky white-fleshed fish. Cooking fish requires a keen eye and gentle touch that is nullified by hot plates that continue to cook them into a dry, overcooked condition.

Closing salvos that reveal that amateurs are at work include no request by your server for a coffee or tea order and an unrequested check plunked down on the table at meal’s end or even during the dessert course. That’s OK for an inexpensive diner where the turning of tables and high volume is necessary to stay in business, but not at a pricier, upscale, more prestigious spot where it is yet another indication of a less than well-run restaurant.

Perhaps the Dalai Lama of bad restaurants that I experienced occurred at an Indian restaurant where we were given a bill, even before we ordered and then a second one before we received our appetizers. The topper came the next morning when I passed by and looked into its window and saw stacks of dirty dishes covered with flies. It gets my “ick” vote for worst bad restaurant.

richard jay scholem

Richard Jay Scholem practically invented the Long Island restaurant culture through 800+ reviews of the region's eateries both on radio and in print over the last 30 years. He is a former New York Times Long Island Section restaurant reviewer, has contributed to the Great Restaurants of...magazines and Bon Vivant, authored a book, aired reviews on WGSM and WCTO radio stations, served on the board of countless community and food and beverage organizations, and received many accolades for his journalism in both print and broadcast media. He is currently available for restaurant consultation. Reach him at (631) 271-3227.