1. Bargain banners on frontage
WHY: A discreet card tucked into the menu to announce a discount offer is fine, but those exterior banners targeting pedestrians and drivers suggest that the restaurant isn’t seeing many people walk through its doors. See #10.
2. Off-message theme nights
WHY: Lots of great restaurants offer fun and rewarding special events, but if a restaurant’s initial, say, Northern Italian, concept is failing to the degree that that the restaurant is running Sushi/Karaoke Thursday Nights, it’s time to be scared.
3. Very Long, Kitchen-Sink menus
WHY: A huge menu that offers a hundred different options raises questions about the care with which each dish is prepared. You can bet that in most cases—like at the lobster-tank-diner with an eight-page menu—its Duck a l’orange comes directly from a Cryovac bag (after a brief zap in the microwave).
4. Dirty tabletop items, including but not limited to: grated cheese with parsley flecks, sticky salt and pepper shakers, coffee-splashed sugar-packet bowls, etc., etc.
WHY: These are items that diners are almost guaranteed to see. If a restaurant can’t keep these things clean, what does that say about its ability to adequately manage a dining room staff and kitchen?
5. Massive Portions
WHY: No one goes into the restaurant business to give food away. Though that $10 endless bowl of pasta (and its uglier cousin, the AYCE buffet) appear to offer good value, in fact, they’re only made profitable by using unskilled kitchen staff and inferior ingredients.
6. Four-foot-tall pepper grinders
WHY: They’re formal, outmoded, and impractical, and they offer no benefit over a normal-sized grinder. It reveals a restaurant’s tendency to prefer spectacle over sense.
7. Table tent (cocktail/dessert) menus with photographs
WHY: These are usually generated by an exterior source—a liquor company, a commercial dessert producer—and indicate that the restaurant doesn’t have the interest (or skill) to design its own cocktails or desserts.
8. Dying or fake flowers
WHY: Browning petals, crumbling baby’s breath, and murky vase water all indicate that the restaurant is waiting too long between its flower deliveries. So what does this economizing say about the restaurant’s fish? And fake flowers indicate that the restaurant is trying to pass something off as the real thing. In both cases, no flowers at all is far less concerning.
9. Grossly out-of-date reviews
WHY: A lot of things can happen in 10 years. It’s a screaming Downhill Alert when you find yourself standing at the podium looking at a decade-old review without a more recent follow-up.
10. Absence of other diners
WHY: Do you really need to know why this is scary?