Who doesn’t love eating out? It’s great not to have to cook for yourself, but it can also be anxiety-inducing to think about someone else cooking for you. Just what happened to the food before it arrived on our table? Was the meat handled correctly? Did the cook wash his hands? Frankly, some of the common practices of the food service industry might surprise the average customer. I talked to some seasoned industry professionals to discover what words of wisdom they had about the behind-the-scenes scene at their favorite spot. It’s helpful advice, but best not to read on a full stomach.
1. Don’t Be the Last Table of the Night
Most servers complain about the party who walks in at five minutes ’til closing time, but what makes late-night dining ill-advised isn’t the inconvenience. Besides being a pain, it’s doubtful that the food will be very good. By the end of the night, the kitchen is in full clean-up mode, so entrées are more likely to be haphazardly thrown together than carefully prepared. They’re using ingredients that were prepped hours ago, and cooking them in ovens or fryers that contain the accumulated buildup of an entire night’s service. Sometimes chefs cook and clean at the same time, increasing the likelihood of your steak being sprayed with drain cleaner or particulates from the bleach they’re using to mop the floor. Photo: Cedric’s Pics (cc)
2. Vermin Happen
Any place where food is stored is going to attract pests, and in large cities with older infrastructure (like Boston or New York), vermin are simply an unpleasant fact. Most restaurants battle against it every day, but it’s inevitable that sometimes customers are going to see a roach or a rat. Rare is the restaurant where they’re not at least an occasional problem. Even clean restaurants can attract pests, so seeing one isn’t an indictment against the restaurant’s cleanliness. Usually, if it doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would have bug problems, it’s probably a more-or-less isolated incident. Sadly, though, there are indeed restaurants where the pests seem right at home. Ben, from New York, says, “Customers should try not to freak out if they see something, and if they can subtly point it out to a manager or server, they’ll probably get a freebie or two.” Photo: Big Fat Rat (cc)
3. Be Wary of Fish
Although a restaurant might list a given fish on its menu, there’s no guarantee that the snapper listed on the menu isn’t a cheaper fish like tilapia. It’s not always the restaurant’s fault, as seafood distributors do most of the mislabeling. Unfortunately, restaurants themselves do engage in fishy business, like selling endangered or threatened species like bluefin tuna or Chilean sea bass under different names like “toro.” Most customers don’t even know the difference.
Very rarely do restaurants get food deliveries on the weekend, so anything served on Sunday night has probably been in the cooler for a few days at least, and might not be at the peak of freshness. Ben*, the former manager of a restaurant in New York, says, “Be wary of anything that needs to be very fresh on a Sunday, especially fish. Probably best to stay away entirely from a Sunday fish special.” Putting things on special is how many restaurants clear out merchandise that would otherwise go bad. A weekend fish special is basically saying, “Please eat this today because we can’t sell it tomorrow.” Photo: John and Keturah (cc)
4. Hygiene Isn’t Perfect
Most restaurants have high cleanliness standards, but truthfully, sanitation isn’t always perfect. “The kitchen can be a gross place,” says Angie, a pastry chef in San Francisco. “I have seen servers and chefs come back from the bathroom or a cigarette break, not wash their hands, and go back to handling food.” Restaurants are busy places, and many times the workers just don’t take the time to be sanitary. Although state boards of health set strict rules for restaurants, some rules (like wearing gloves) are only followed on inspection day, because following them all the time would slow down production. The truth is that chefs handle food with their bare hands, bartenders touch your garnish after wiping down the bar, and servers are touching menus and utensils used by other patrons without washing their hands in between tables. Also, if it’s flu season, you can be sure that at least a few employees on duty will be sick. Since restaurant employees aren’t usually paid for sick time, they have no choice but to come to work when they’re ill, no matter how sniffly or sneezy they might be. Image: Stewf (cc)
Of course, not all restaurants are cesspools of filth. As a general rule, cleanliness depends on the standards set by the owner, and high-end or family-owned restaurants tend to have better hygiene than chain restaurants or diners do because the owners have more personal accountability and a reputation to preserve. To gauge a restaurant’s cleanliness, look around the dining room. If the ketchup bottles have crusted nozzles, the bathroom is foul, or the floor looks like it hasn’t been swept all week, chances are that the kitchen is a reflection of those same standards. Restaurants with high standards pay attention to small details.
5. Don’t Look Behind the Scenes
I once worked in a restaurant where the service stations were in view of the customers, and many people were shocked at some of the tasks we performed. We refilled the ketchup bottles from a giant plastic bladder, dirty buspans were stored next to fresh food, and the floor was covered in debris. What they witnessed wasn’t criminal or negligent; it was just part of the inner workings of a restaurant, which can be shocking for someone who’s never worked in one. Sometimes it’s better to stay in the dark, so if you have the chance to peek into the kitchen or the staff-only area, don’t.
Once your food is in front of you, don’t let it out of your sight, because you never know what could happen to it. When entrées are boxed up to go or sent to the kitchen to be cooked further, sometimes the staff cuts corners. Kim, a former server and bartender from New York, advises, “Always wrap up your own food. I’ve seen too many pizzas picked out of the garbage and breadsticks roll under the counters.” Photo: FlySi (cc)
It’s easy to feel squeamish about restaurants because they prepare our food, and we feel like even the smallest infraction could potentially endanger our health. While some restaurant stories disgust or repulse, the uneventful truth is that most restaurants are highly professional establishments that just want to serve good food and make their customers happy. Outrageous displays of bad hygiene are the exception, not the rule, and customers should feel totally confident when eating out. Just be sure to check the ketchup and carpets first.
*Names have been changed
Updated September 15, 2010