Besides fitness and nutrition, I’ve spent YEARS working in restaurants and bars, some awesome places and some that I wouldn’t let the raccoons in my yard eat at. Today I want to provide 25 tips for a better restaurant experience.
We know that preparing food at home is not only cheaper but gives you control over the nutrition you’re getting and you know exactly what is going into each dish you prepare. At a restaurant, it’s up in the air like your eaten meal may be after possible food poisoning.
Yes, I’ve seen that plenty of times…
In this blog, I’ll share not only the healthiest eating tips but some inside info on how to get the best experience and some better perks. So here we go in no particular order.
Fun Fact: Tom’s Diner in the picture is of course famously known as Monk’s Restaurant from Seinfeld and I’ve eaten there a bunch of times (no rubber bands in my soup). It was also the basis for “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega in 1987 (you remember the song..) and a young Barack Obama would eat there at times when he attended Columbia University.
25 Tips For A Better Restaurant Experience
The First Indicator If You’re In A Good Restaurant
The quality of the bread and butter they serve before a meal is going to be an indicator if you are in a place that takes real pride in their food or if you’re about to enjoy a lackluster experience.
I’ve worked with secret diners who do restaurant reviews and this is always at the top of their list. Bread that’s served early in the meal should be soft, fresh, made that day in the restaurant and served warm. This way you know you’re dealing with freshly made food and it’s a good sign of things to come.
The butter should also be soft and spreadable. How many times have you been served a cold roll with a rock hard piece of butter that destroy the whole thing and is unspreadable? This is a good sign the place cuts corners and isn’t passionate about serving food.
Bonus points if the butter is a blend with other ingredients like whole grain mustard or even a combination of oils to dip the bread in.
Check Out The Bathrooms
This is also on the list that secret diners always will check out. Restroom cleanliness will equate to overall restaurant cleanliness and that would include the kitchen. A dirty kitchen means dirty food and checking the bathrooms just gives a good indicator again if pride is taken in all aspects of the restaurant.
Try To Avoid The Peak Times
This may go without saying but if you’re someone who doesn’t like to wait for food you want to avoid between 6-8 pm. Ideally, you’re eating somewhere that prepares food as fresh as possible and that’s going to mean some wait time.
Appetizers on a good day should take around 14-18 minutes to reach you and entrees anywhere from 22-28. This isn’t the case across the board but is realistic expectations based on places I’ve worked. When things are going balls to the wall in the kitchen you can be looking at 45-60 minutes to get your main meal out to you.
Watch Out For The “Decoy Effect”
This is a retail pricing technique but in our case here concerns wine selection. Wine prices are ordered to make you think you’re getting a good deal but are probably overpaying, and spending MORE than you planned to.
It goes like this: If there are two wines on a menu for $9 and $16 which one would you pick? It’s not that definite, if you’re cheap like me you may go for the $9 one but there’s not much of a scale of reference. If this list now has a $47 wine on it most of the time people will go for the $16 one. The perceived value has changed and something you may not have bought because the price was too high now suddenly appears of value and less expensive.
Wine lists will always have a few high end and very expensive wines and these are the decoys to make others appear cheaper (which might not have looked as cheap if the expensive ones weren’t on the list). So your best bet is to have some favorites that you scan the list for instead of looking at the price so you don’t get sucked into this.
Don’t Go For the Second Cheapest Wine
This is partially related to the decoy effect and more based on individual glasses. If there is a $6 an $8, and a $10 glass of wine most people don’t want to look like a cheapskate and they go for the second cheapest. In a lot of places, this is the goal as they know this and that second cheapest is usually the least in value as it may be a lower end wine with a huge markup. Retail and restaurants bank on your pridefulness in making these decisions and you were probably better off, value wise, going for the cheapest one as it probably wasn’t marked up as much.
If You’re Eating During Prime Time Don’t Go In Hungry
I know everyone wants to “save their appetite” for the big dining experience but if you go in at 7:30 you’re going to be waiting. If your last meal was around 2 pm it could be 6+ hours until you’re well underway with eating.
This means dropping blood sugar and the hunger and irritability that goes along with this. A restaurant can be an ugly place because everyone in there is hungry and you’ve got a building with plummeting blood sugar and the impatience and anger that goes along with that.
For those who work in the service industry, it’s right up there with airports and hospitals where you get to see the worst of people while still trying to make a living. So I would have a little something an hour or so beforehand so you’re not that customer that wants to dropkick the busboy. But he probably had it coming..
If You Want A Quiet Meal For Two, Book A Table For Three
This makes it more likely that you’re not stuffed in a corner like an old pair of shoes. When you book a table of three it’s going to be in a more relaxed area where you’ll have some more room and be more comfortable.
Tips For Not Overeating At A Buffet
Again, when you go in a hungry a buffet may look like the promised land. Buffets would rather you stick to all the starches and carb based items as you’ll get filled up on them and it doesn’t cost them as much compared to the more expensive proteins.
So to get your monies worth stick to the proteins and then also vegetables before you eat any starch as protein and veg will fill you up quicker causing you to eat less overall.
If You Want To Get Into A Place That Is Booked Months In Advance
Do you want to try out a high-end Michelin star place but it has a three-month waiting list? Go by yourself and just show up. It’s not guaranteed but these places will always try to accommodate a party of one. It’s not necessarily that they feel sorry for you (but that doesn’t hurt) but they see it as a great gesture that their food means that much to you that you’re willing to risk going there solo.
Gordon Ramsay has always been known to do this at his London restaurants and a party of 1 is easier to accommodate, get in and then on your way as they know you won’t be staying as long as a group of 6.
As Gordon Ramsay says; “&^$** you #(#*@! while you %@!* and then *&*%#^# before you go and %!%@^!”
Become A Regular & Get More Free Stuff
When you become a familiar face and choose to spend your money at a certain restaurant you become the ideal valued customer and it can mean free drinks and appetizers coming your sweet sweet way.
When I would bartend at restaurants where people can eat at the bar I would get regular customers. I would have no problem passing on free drinks here and there or extra bread, upsized items etc because they would treat me well so I wanted to take care of them.
There is so much competition for your dollar that having someone consistently coming back definitely get’s recognized and rewarded.
Bonus tip: Bringing new people each time you come tends to accelerate this feature.
Getting Your Order In Quicker
If your server is not getting back to you to check your order and everyone seems to be running around like the Running of The Bulls stack your closed menus together and place at the edge of the table.
When the servers are busy they’re not necessarily going to keep checking if you’re ready to order but in case you didn’t know this the stacked closed menu gesture makes it more likely that they will come and get your order in quicker compared to the people just blankly staring at their menus who may be ready to order.
Just getting your order in that few minutes quicker can make the difference in you getting your food anywhere from 20-30 minutes quicker than the other diners.
Hagle With The Sommelier
Sommelier’s or “soms” are geniuses. The amount of knowledge these people have is extraordinary and they love to share it so make sure you ask lots of questions. Don’t be afraid if you don’t have much wine knowledge as they love to teach and inform. There are not too many more people in the world who are as passionate about something as a good ‘ol Som.
So if you want to get a bit better value on wine as them for the “bin end” list. These are the bottles with blemishes or ripped labels, unpopular brands, and past-their-prime vintages. You can ask the som to come up with a great glass of wine and give him a price on what you’re willing to pay, just make sure to keep it under $30.
This way you can get double the value for a wine, or more, that they are also happy to move as then it’s not just sitting there taking up cellar space.
Check out the documentary “Som” on Netflix so you can see what really goes into this amazing profession.
The “Specials” Aren’t Always So Special
They are definitely pushed big time by the servers but specials a lot of the time are just a way to clear out items and hopefully still make money on them. They also can be dishes that have ingredients that don’t cost the restaurant much but can make them quite a bit.
The server might say there are only ten left! But that tends to not usually be the case. It’s not that the special is a bad choice but it’s not always the best value.
If You’re Hungry Ask For Everything At Once
If the appetizer station in the kitchen is backed up it means your main dishes will take even longer to get to you so they can keep the right order. It’s a pretty North American thing to always have appetizer and mains follow each other but a lot of the world doesn’t eat like this.
If you don’t mind things coming in a different order ask for everything all at once and you’re more likely to get food quicker than other tables. And this leads to less drop kicking over all.
Stack Your Dishes For Quicker Service
I know you’re going out to eat to specifically avoid having to do stuff like this but if the restaurant is slammed this again can get you your food quicker. A server or busboy having to take forever to clear your table throws things behind. If you have your plates and cutlery stacked and ready to go it means having your next course put through quicker than the other tables. And we want to beat those suckers!
Avoid Ice In Your Drinks
This is a two-parter. The first is obvious in that you get more product this way but the second is more health concerning. Ice machines can have a lot of bacteria in them as they are not regularly cleaned. It’s a massive pain, trust me, and the same thing goes for soft drink machines. That build up of sugar can lead to mold growth and bacteria. Again, another pain to clean so it’s not always done.
Just to concern you further, 6 out of 10 restaurants have more bacteria in the ice than in the toilets. This was primarily observed in fast food restaurants as they spend more time cleaning the bathrooms than the ice machines but from what I’ve seen this is probably across the board.
The Real Way To Find The Best Items On The Menu
I worked at one restaurant where a local business owner would always bring groups of out of town clients. He wouldn’t even ask for menus but instead, ask me to order the dishes I thought were best and keep them coming.
If you want to find out what is really best on the menu ask the staff not only what they would choose but what they eat when they have a meal there. You might be able to get something a little off menu but the main thing is if the staff choose to eat it you can be pretty certain it’s top notch.
Ask For A Tour Of The Kitchen
This may be out of your comfort zone a little but it’s interesting for a few reasons. Any restaurant worth its salt has nothing to hide and should be happy to show you the kitchen when it’s in function. This way you know you’re dealing with top rate food. I’ve seen enough kitchens where a dropped burger was just thrown back on the plate and it gets worse from there.
It’s also a good way to see how the place is run and the production that goes behind putting meals together. Some restaurants will have tables right in the kitchen or an open concept kitchen so everything is out in the open. I’m down with these kinds of places as I want to know I can trust where my food is coming from.
Don’t Get Fruit In Your Drink
I know we all love some lemon and lime in our drink but you may want to avoid them now. Most fruit in a restaurant is not washed and just cut up by the bartender and placed in storage containers.
The other problem is as clean as a bartender can be they can’t be constantly washing their hands which mean the fruit is handled by dirty hands and dropped right into the drink you’ll be sipping. It’s not hard for disease and germs to spread; dirty glasses are brought back to the bar to wash and they usually are picked up where people put their lips on them, the bartender may then be making your drinks and grabbing the fruit putting it in contact with God knows what he’s just touched.
In the Journal of Environmental Health, samples were taken from the rind and flesh of lemon slices and found 70% of samples from 21 different restaurants to contain 25 different microbial contents.
I’d been a bartender for years and I’m very clean and sanitary but trust me, there’s no way you can stay on top of it and fruit gets exposed to too much. And this is from extremely clean restaurants so you can imagine issues in other places. Or such as here:
Take Yelp & Online Reviews With A Grain Of Salt
Somewhere along the way, everyone decided that they were a food critic. Most of these people have no concept of how to cook or how food is prepared and base their knowledge on watching Top Chef.
The problem with restaurant reviews is that people love to jump online and complain to strangers. A restaurant may have a ton of happy diners but that’s not reflected in the rating. Happy diners are more likely to tell their friends and family about a place as opposed to going online to tell a bunch of people they don’t know that are reading reviews eating saltines in their underwear.
It’s not to say the bad reviews aren’t justified but when people complain they are more likely to do it in this manner now and you’re not seeing the whole story of a restaurant. People will also always exaggerate their displeasure as the problems are usually really insignificant and as people, we tend to overexaggerate. Some people also realize how trivial their issues are once they start to share it and it makes them want to enhance the drama or issue as they realize their complaint is pretty insignificant.
People’s complaints will always be accentuated; waiting for 10 minutes becomes “a 25-minute wait”, “staff was rude” is as much the customer was a pain in the ass and the server was actually quite patient. I’ve seen people come in and complain that they waited for various amounts of time and when you go back and check the video it’s always at least half of what they say. Yelp reviews are still important but nothing beats word of mouth for real promotion still.
Yelp reviews are still important but nothing beats word of mouth for real promotion still.
Healthy Eating Tips
Here are a few tips to eat as healthy while you’re out. Dining out is an experience and a treat so I don’t think you should deny yourself but you can make sure to take a few steps to stay on top of your health and nutrition.
1. When In Doubt Always Go For Salads & Protein
I’m talking about eating in places that are not fast food or chain restaurants but even there this is an ok option. Ideally, you’re in a place that uses more local ingredients and clean sources of protein. If nothing on the menu seems like it can be a healthy choice you can always go the salad and protein route as every restaurant in the world will pretty much have this option.
Go for the darkest leafy greens they have and then choose a protein like chicken or shrimp to put on top of it. I’m a big fan of Cobb salads which also contain things like egg and avocado, both healthy choices.
2. Ask For A Simple & Healthier Dressing
Again, a truly good restaurant makes all its own sauces, dressings, marinades, stocks etc so this shouldn’t be hard to find. Even an in-house made dressing can still be a transfat filled high-calorie source such as a caesar dressing. When in doubt go for an olive oil and vinaigrette dressing.
This is not a hard thing for them to do so if you don’t see it as an option just ask. As a good rule of thumb, I would always ask if they make all their stuff in house. I like a red wine vinaigrette or even balsamic vinegar as you’ll get some health benefits from the olive oil including joint health, cognitive function, better hair, and skin etc.
3. Go For Fish If It’s An Option
This is what I always choose when I go out. Not only as it’s a generally healthy option but it’s something I’m not likely, or as able, to prepare at home. I’m a pretty good cook but doing fish or seafood really well is a great skill. It’s also expensive and higher end restaurants usually have access to top quality fish so that’s why I go for it.
Fish, and specifically salmon is something we don’t eat enough of, if at all. We are missing out on one of the best sources of omega 3 out there along with a very good protein source. Omega 3 from fish oil has a great anti-inflammatory effect and assists in lowering cholesterol, improving cognitive function and even improving your skin and hair.
Here’s a full blog on the benefits of omega 3 and fish
4. Getting Better Pizza
If you’re going to a good Italian restaurant they should be making all their pizza from scratch and this can work in your favor. Since all the dough and crust is made by hand ask them to do the thinnest crust they can as this will really cut down on the carb content.
Next ask for an olive oil and garlic base. Not only is it healthier but to me tastes better. Then go for a good protein source like chicken if you eat meat and then load the thing up with veggies. There are obviously better things you could eat but in this situation, it’s not too bad at all.
5. Ask For No MSG
Why do we use salt in cooking, it’s not just about the salty flavor in itself and if you’re tasting more salt than anything else it’s been overseasoned. Salt is used because it enhances the flavors that are already there. Salt is like a magnifying glass that helps bring out more of the natural flavor.
MSG is like salt on steroids and along with that, it can have some pretty rough health effects. MSG acts as an excitotoxin in the brain and can cause addiction to it and the craving for more. It’s similar to aspartame in that you never fully feel satisfied and why you can end up craving MSG containing foods no long after you’ve eaten them.
If you’re eating at somewhere where you’re paying $4.95 for a meal you’re on your own but at a higher end Asian type restaurant dishes are still made from scratch. But you’d be surprised that even top end places using the best ingredients will still use some MSG when putting wok based meals together so go ahead and make sure they don’t include it in your dish.
Wrapping It Up
Phew, I’m hungry from just typing all this. Hopefully, these 25 tips for a better restaurant experience have shown you a thing or two on how to get the best out of your dining. If you liked this article please feel free to share with anyone you think might enjoy it too. There’s a bunch of those new fangled social media sharing buttons around here somewhere.
And if you want to learn more about taking control of your health sign up for my email newsletter and in doing so I send you off a free eBook all about healthy eating. It’s a short guide breaking down the foods you want to include, things to avoid and why, and also has some recipes to get you started. Just click the link below: