14 May 2010

Good Signs, Bad Signs (You Know We’ve Had Our Share): A Deconstructionist’s Guide to Gauging Restaurant Quality

The following is a collaboration between my good friend Ruth Tobias of the inestimable Denver-based food/drink blog Denveater (tagged herein as Denv.), myself (tagged as MCSJB), Boston blogger Hidden Boston (tagged as HB), and Denver blogger Denver on a Spit (tagged as DOAS).

The idea for the post, the selection of the contributors, and the editing of all our input into a coherent whole was all Ruth's: many thanks to her for her originality, hard work, and supreme cat-herding effort. She is the first-person "I" in this piece. If you see a restaurant name you don't recognize, it's likely in the Denver area.


I knew the Director and I were in for a long night at the not-surprisingly-now-defunct Mark and Isabella the second we stepped inside and I saw the slogan on the back of a server’s T-shirt: “Got lasagna?” Faux-snark swiped from an ad campaign that had long since been borrowed to the point of grinding cliché did not bode well for the freshness of the dining experience—and sure enough, from the half-hearted service to the even-less-hearted cooking, the meal was a real drag. It occurred to me then that outside of roadhouses and shacks—clam, BBQ, burger, and otherwise—cheeky T-shirts might be an indication that the powers that be were putting the style cart before the substance horse.

When my theory was confirmed at the meh Via della Pace in Manhattan's East Village a couple months back, it got me to thinking about other indirect but generally reliable signs that a place is going to rock or suck. Cheesy Asian pop in an Asian restaurant, for instance: good. Cheesy American pop in an American restaurant: bad. Frank Sinatra in an Italian restaurant: really bad. Sleek logos: good. Gaudy logos: bad. No logos at all: probably bad (assuming it’s a pretentious appeal to insiderly exclusivity—although read on for an important exception). And so on.

It also got me to asking other food bloggers for their thoughts on the subject; here, the authors of Denver on a Spit, MC Slim JB, and Hidden Boston graciously offer up some worthy words to the wise (hey, that’s you!). Which doesn’t mean you should take them entirely without a grain of salt; as MC Slim JB points out, “It's an old Chowhound adage that deliciousness turns up where you least expect it. I am still routinely surprised to find great food in places I figured would be awful, and bad food where I expected joy. And I keep ‘discovering’ great little joints that have been around for years; I just never noticed them or happened by their neighborhoods. So don't take these rules of thumb as durable: there are always exceptions, and pleasant surprises hiding behind ominous first impressions are among the great pleasures of dining out.”

With that said:


English—or Rather the Lack Thereof

This may seem fairly obvious, but a good sign when looking for good food is a lack of English. This can start with the customers. If the customers are all talking in a language other than English, then chances are you have found a place that is at least authentic. This can backfire, of course, because if you go the McDonald's on Alameda near Federal; a lot of people may be talking in Vietnamese or Spanish, but you're still in a Wack Arnold's. If the waitstaff doesn't or barely speaks English, then that could be a good sign, too—but that could also happen at McDonald's. So probably the best indication is that the menu is in another language—especially if all or parts of it are not translated. [Conversely, see Dining for Dummies below—Denv.] Also, you probably want to figure out how to order off that part of the menu. Like at Denver’s New Saigon. Ever notice that untranslated page in Vietnamese? The servers often strongly discourage non-natives from ordering from there. Ignore them.— DOAS

A staff that cheerfully labors to overcome language barriers (example: East Boston's Restaurante Montecristo). Actually, that's a red herring: restaurants with little English in the front of the house that don't try to work with my kindergartner's Spanish can be good, too [see: El Taco de Mexico—Denv], but I'm impressed when they bother.—MCSJB

Wheels, Tents and Tunes

Signage—or Rather the Lack Thereof [an exception to my "no logos" rule—Denv.]

Speaking of signs good and bad, a complete lack of signage is often a good sign. Las Tortugas on Alameda just recently added a sign after years without. This is one of the most authentic torta experiences you will have outside of Mexico. A restaurant not only surviving but flourishing without any kind of advertising can only mean good things. Places like these grow by word of mouth. They have no websites, emails or, at times, even traceable phone numbers. If you are lucky enough to find one, then it is likely that you have stumbled upon something special. Likewise, signs you can't understand are often good.—DOAS

Attitude—or the Lack Thereof
Many restaurants feel the need to cater to every whiny need of its customers at any cost. Others, in the tradition of the Soup Nazi, post a list of rules that owners expect their customers to follow. These places know their food is good. If you are worried about pissing off the restaurant owners or cook, it must be good. When dining at Tom’s Diner in Denver, read the rules and don’t be a pain in the ass. The result? Some of the best Southern fare you can hope for in Denver.—DOAS

A warm, sincere-sounding greeting from the hostess stand immediately upon entering. A flustered, supercilious, or inattentive maître d' is a red flag.—MCSJB
See: Wild Bangkok—Denv.]

A chef-owned place that closes when the chef goes on holiday (example: Trattoria Toscana near Fenway). The level of professional pride reflected in the implied motto, “If I'm not here cooking, it's not my food,” is generally encouraging.—MCSJB

Tableware—or the Lack Thereof
Environmental awareness has not yet expanded to encompass all restaurants equally. So if you are comfortable enlarging your carbon footprint from time to time in exchange for some good food, then an unfortunate good sign is often paper plates, plastic forks and Styrofoam cups (big ones).

Meanwhile, napkins are fluff. In my own home, napkins are for when guests like parents come over. Paper towels are absorbent and good for dabbing the corners of your mouth, wiping up big saucy spills from the table and sopping up the grease you can't lick off your fingers. A roll of paper towels on each table is a solid sign of good food. The opposite of the paper towel is ultra-thin, almost transparent tissue-paper napkins. I have not seen a lot of these in the States, but in many countries this is the standard. If you grab for a napkin, then need to grab four more to sop up a pea-sized spill, you have chosen well.

[See: Tin Star Cafe Donut Haus—DOAS]


Roots, Part 1: Where Everybody Looks the Same [to the tune of the "Cheers" theme]

Not in the way that all white people look the same, but as in a staff that shares the same genetic makeup. Is sis hosting while bro serves and mom barks orders from the kitchen? Stay. It's going to be good.—DOAS

Son out front, mom in the back. I've run into this setup in many tiny, traditional restaurants, and the results are often wonderful.—MCSJB
[See: Lao Wang Noodle House—Denv.]

Roots, Part 2
A cliché that happens to be true: a crowd of ex-pats in a restaurant serving their homeland's cuisine, e.g., many Thai immigrants dining in a Thai restaurant. Somewhere there must be throngs of Cantonese speakers with lousy taste—the Chinese equivalent of Chili's fans—so their presence at a Hong Kong–style live-tank seafood restaurant shouldn't impress me. But I haven't run into them yet.—MCSJB
[See: Star Kitchen—Denv.]

Places with wheels always get my attention. There is something about an operation that has the potential to be portable that tickles my tastebuds. In Denver, many of my favorite meals come from food carts or out of taco trucks, running the range from Gastro Cart’s gourmet goodies to my favorite hidden loncheras (luncheonettes) in Aurora. Everything tastes better when it comes from a vehicle parked on a street corner or empty lot. As the food truck and cart boom grows in Denver this spring and summer, this might change, but for now, it's a great place to start.


Or: There is a big white canopy tent in a parking lot next to a restaurant. Under that tent is a hunk of red stacked pork loins roasting on a spit with open flame. There are juices dripping off the meat. You probably want to go there.

Also: nothing says Mexican street life (and that in many other parts of the world) like bootleg CDs and DVDs being sold on the street. If there is someone with a rack of CDs leaning against his or her car in the parking lot of a restaurant, that really can only mean good things for the food inside. If there is a guy hawking cheap plastic toys as well? Jackpot. For a special bonus, does the owner let people come in off the street and peddle stuff inside of the restaurant itself? This takes the parking lot theory to a new level, and is not limited to CDs. Tamales, cheese, and tortillas are all fair game. Denver's Taco Mex has it all.—DOAS


Cleanliness, Godliness
A spotless open kitchen where every cook has a tidy mise-en-place. Not every fine dining restaurant that exhibits this orderliness will be good, but an open kitchen without it inevitably disappoints. Also: spanking-clean bathrooms. A restaurant that minds this particular corner of the store reveals something honorable about its character.—MCSJB


Staff: Aptitude and Attitude

"Hi, my name is ____ and I'll be your server tonight." Not the server's fault, I know: this is part of the restaurant's robotic training regimen. But it still sets my teeth on edge every time. A rote phrase of greeting is an unpromising way to start the meal.

Your place may serve food, but it's primarily a nightclub, and nightclub owners virtually never run worthwhile restaurants.—MCSJB

The host who points to your table rather than taking you to it. When hosts do this, it implies that a) they hate their job; b) they don't really care about the customers; c) they are incredibly lazy. In all three cases, it sends up warning signals to the diners.
—HBPimped-out servers. Restaurants that drape female servers in tight, revealing uniforms are usually trying to distract you from some unflattering facts about their food. Staring at you, Hooters. —MCSJB
[See, er: Hooters—Denv.]

A server who sits at your table when s/he takes your order. Why do they need to sit at the table? Are they tired? Are they looking for new friends? Either way, it is irritating and vaguely disturbing, especially if the table is tight to begin with.
[See: The Wine Loft—Denv.]


The involvement of a professional athlete: their name on the marquee or their ownership stake touted in the restaurant's marketing. I can't think of a single restaurant of this type I've visited that wasn't overpriced, mediocre, or both.
[Elway’s is an exception, but one that proves the rule.—Denv.]

“Tony Gabbagool” shtick. Certain Italian places (example:
Strega in Boston’s North End) hype their affinity for heavily-stereotyped American Mafia culture, some going so far as to hire former Sopranos bit actors to promote their restaurants. It's stale, stupid, and borderline-offensive, not a harbinger of quality.—MCSJB

A floor show. Benihana-style teppanyaki, strolling violinists,
Fire + Ice falderol (you select ingredients and sauces to be stir-fried in front of you on a giant griddle), and other gimmicks often hide lackluster ingredients behind the zazzle.—MCSJB

Kitschy mismatched bric-à-brac: stuffed game-animal heads, old road signs, etc. Another casual dining trope that says, "Boil-in-bag food served here."—MCSJB

Dining for Dummies

An English-language menu that only captures a subset of the entire Chinese menu, usually featuring only Americanized dishes. This doesn't mean that Chinese restaurants with limited-for-dumb-Americans menus don't have good food, but I may never know if all they offer me is junk like crab Rangoon and General Gau's chicken. (Pointing at other customers' orders can help, but only until your next visit when you want to get that dish again.)

Tent cards, those little pre-printed cardboard pyramids on the table promoting a drink special (Hypnotiq Cozmos!), appetizer (Shrimp Poppers!), entree (Fettuccine Alfredo in a Bread Bowl!), or dessert (Mom's Homemade Chocolate Lava Cake!). They're a staple of national casual dining chain hellholes, and thus inspire foreboding.

Similarly: An insert for specials looks older than the regular menus.

A menu with photos of the food (this mainly applies to traditional American places, as pictures of food at ethnic restaurants aren't always a bad thing). Usually the pictures are stock photos, which means they have nothing to do with the restaurant (unless perhaps the point is to show diners what a hamburger looks like). All they do is take up space on the menu, which may be the questionable goal of the restaurant
[In Italy, picture menus are usually accompanied by the words "Menu Turistico!" If that's not a sign to vamoose, I don't know what is.—Denv.]

First Impression (with your teeth)

Wonder-Bread-like dinner rolls with portion-control oleo pats served at an American-Chinese restaurant. Get ready for magenta spareribs and gloppy chicken chow mein.

Roots, Part 3

No ex-pats dining in a restaurant serving their traditional cuisine.
[See: P. F. Chang's—Denv.]

Got it? Good. Now you’re ready for the Dining Deconstructionist’s Bonus Guide, by MC Slim JB (with yet more commentary by Denveater):


Reviews as Signage

A glowing review posted in the window. This is only useful if the review is recent and the reviewer trustworthy, not some pay-for-play schmuck like
The Phantom Gourmet, or a faceless mob of Zagateers who might also adore P. F. Chang's. Further, some restaurants have been caught posting counterfeit reviews, using Photoshop to convert pans into raves.

Agreed: A “They love us on Yelp!” sticker might as well read, “We paid our monthly advertising bill!” As for Zagat, here’s a little tip from a former editor of the Boston/Cape Cod guides (yes, me)—a sticker reading “Zagat Rated” means, uh, the place has been rated. Likely iffily. If it had been rated highly, the owner would probably have opted to frame the whole review. And to underline Slim’s emphasis on recent reviews: I always do a double take when all the clippings and plaques are years old—who knows what’s changed since then? Case in point: Mare in Boston’s North End, which is lined with banners boasting major accolades—from 2006, when the legendary Marisa Iocco was in the kitchen. The current chef may well be a gem, but those banners don’t reassure me; they aren’t sparkling for him.—Denv.

Crowds—or the Lack Thereof
A full parking lot or a line stretching down the sidewalk. All this certifies is that the joint has connected with some lowest common denominator. As with amateur reviews on Yelp, unless you know the tastes of the enthusiasts, you can't trust the endorsement of the crowd. Most outlets of The Cheesecake Factory have nightly lines out the door, too.

No customers. Plenty of wonderful restaurants, e.g., East Boston's lamented Oran Cafe, never find a following, thanks to a bad location (rough neighborhood, hard to reach, no parking/public transit nearby, unpromising setting like a gas station), seedy physical plant, inept or nonexistent marketing, and/or sheer bad luck. Or maybe it's just really, really new. You may be the first to discover it, to truly appreciate and evangelize it.

Roots, Part 4
A match between the nationality of the chef and the restaurant's cuisine. There are excellent Japanese restaurants with Chinese chefs, swell Cajun restaurants with Vietnamese chefs, fine French restaurants with American chefs, fine molecular chefs who aren't from Mars. Conversely, many bad Italian restaurants brag about their Italian-native chefs. Non importa, amico mio.

Addendum: Corny Décor. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths in a trattoria, serapes and sombreros in a taqueria, golden dragons galore in a dim sum palace: you’d think such clichés would amount to gigantic red flags, proving the equivalent of foot-tall mounds of Alfredo, stale tri-colored chips with neon kway-soh dip and sweet and sour mystery meat. But for some reason, they don’t, at least not often enough to judge by.—Denv.