Restaurant Rules to Live By

In this thread, I mentioned my restaurant rules. Rather than hijack the thread with the ensuing discussion, I figured I’d start a new thread.

So here are my restaurant rules, garnered through painful experience:

  1. The Interstate Restaurant Rule: Always eat at chains within a half-mile of the interstate. Non-chain restaurants within a half-mile of the interstate don’t need to rely on repeat business, so they will probably be gruesome.
  2. The Core Competency Rule: eat what the restaurant is known for. The pizza joint might have fish & chips on the menu for the person that doesn’t like pizza, but it’ll suck. The pizza at the fish camp will also suck.
  3. The Best in Show Corollary: don’t order a dish at a restaurant that’s made better at a different restaurant you can get to anytime soon. If the mad genius behind a local weird tapas joint puts some crazy-ass barbecue sandwich on the menu, and you live in North Carolina, order something else, because you’ll only end up comparing it to the genuine article. It’s kind of a corollary to the Core Competency rule.
  4. The Buffet Novelty Rule: never eat something unusual off a buffet. The weird stuff doesn’t get eaten as much as the regular stuff, which means it’s been sitting under those heat lamps longer. Those beautiful steamed crayfish at the end of the Chinese buffet in Morganton, NC? They’ve been there since last Tuesday.

Superhal suggested the following rules:
5. The Dumb Waiter Rule: never ask the waiter what the “specialty of the house” is. Ask "what do most customers order around here?’
6. The “When In Doubt, Order Bread” rule: if the restaurant has food you don’t particularly like, but you don’t want to get hit by the Core Competency Rule, order something made of bread, e.g. hamburger, BLT, pancakes, etc. It’s rare to screw up a bread-based dish, and even if you do, you won’t get diarrhea or indigestion from it.
7. The Backwards Menu Rule: always check the back/bottom of the menu for the best dishes. The front usually has the most expensive and least satisfying items.

I’m not sure I agree with rule 6 (I’ve had some terrible burgers and sandwiches), but I can see how he gets there. The dumb waiter rule is brilliant, given the reported propensity of restaurants to make their specials out of whatever’s about to go bad, so they can unload it on the customer. And I’ll have to check out the backwards menu rule.

What are your rules, or feedback on the rules so far?

For non-meat eaters—Don’t give them your life philosophy on why you don’t eat meat, or tell them about your rare digestive issues or last month’s religious awakening.

“Can you make the mushroom-swiss burger with a Boca patty instead of the burger?”

“Can you leave the chicken out of the cajun chicken fettuccine?”

Unless it’s a life-threatening food allergy, (and even then) they don’t care about WHY you don’t want a specific ingredient, so just ask if your dish can be modified to your liking and then go from there without the self-righteous 5 minute explanation on your philosophical worldview about the hidden shame of factory farming or the tragic plight of the Guatemalan farmer.

I try to avoid chains, even when traveling on the interstate. However, I do agree with the thinking behind your exit location rule (but the same goes for chains as well, maybe even more so).

When practical, I will try to search out a busy local even if it means driving a few miles out of my way. Have I ended up being burnt by this quest, yes. But I’ve also found some real gems as well. Now with I-phones, this quest is made even easier with available maps, directions, listings, and reviews!!!

Don’t base your tip on how good the food tasted. The servers didn’t cook it. Tip well for attentive, friendly service, whether you liked the food or not.

Most chains will still be clueless on how to modify a dish accordingly. If traveling, you’re better off sticking to a listed vegetarian selection or salad.

The ethnicity/cop rule.
If it’s an ethnic restaurant, look for people of that ethnicity - if they won’t eat there you shouldn’t either.
Look for cops - cops spend a lot of time patrolling an area. If there’s a place with good food at an affordable price, the cops know about it.

The tipping and veggie rules are good, but frankly they’re altruistic–I’m thinking more about rules that lead to eating decent food or avoiding nasty food. I’m totally selfish with my rules. (I trust myself to treat wait staff decently and to tip appropriately: my worry is that other people or their food will suck).

The ethnicity rule is interesting, but it’s failed me spectacularly at least once. When I lived in Chapel Hill, there was a restaurant called El Rodeo. Most of the clientele were Latino. The food was absolutely goddamn disgusting by my standards: incredibly lardy and foul. Ever since, I’ve been wary of the ethnicity idea, because maybe my tastes in food aren’t the same as folks who grew up with a scoop of lard in their beans at every meal, or whatever.

The cop rule is interesting. I’ll have to kep an eye out for that.

flickster, your modification of the Interstate rule is interesting. My problem with it is that a crowded parking lot may mean a long wait, and if I’m driving, I’m probably not willing to take a long wait. However, for folks with different circumstances (e.g., you’re on a road trip just for the sake of being on a road trip), it makes total sense.

Your whim is someone else’s work - keep your demands down to a reasonable level.

We found ourselves at Chili’s, home of the baby back ribs some time back - with - surprise! - a fanatical vegetarian who would not suffer one fleck of bacon on his appetizer. Watching him for 10 minutes ordering something was a trip. I must say, though, the waitress was a real pro. She and veg-o had a long discussion about veggie patties, beans, rice, and various modifications that could be had off-menu. She told us that she had served a party of vegans the week before. She got a nice tip for her pains, believe it.

Always have a Plan B in mind. That way, if the restaurant happens to be out of something, you don’t have to start frantically scanning the menu again looking for something else.

And something I always do: if I have to remember a laundry list of substitutions or omissions (like, say, ordering a roast beef sandwich with swiss cheese on rye as a turkey sandwich with cheddar cheese on wheat), just order something else. I try to find a thing that has the most amount of ingredients that I like–if there are too many things on it that I don’t like, I don’t bother.

If you are eating ethnic, the fancier the plating, the worse the food. The best BBQ is served on butcher paper. The best fried chicken is served on a chipped white plate that looks like a school cafeteria plate.

Sides can show quality. If a place serves black-eyed peas and greens, you can count on their fried chicken.

Don’t eat with vegans. Ever.

In semi-defense of El Rodeo, it used to be damn good. It changed management (in-house) a few times until it was eventually bought out by another chain, the food quality declining steadily all the while. In its present form its clientele consists mostly of college students who usually drink too much beer to taste the food :stuck_out_tongue:

I’ve had decent luck with the ethnicity rule, especially in Asian restaurants. There are some spectacularly bad Chinese joints in my area but you very seldom see many Chinese people eating in them. My aunt is Korean and she definitely doesn’t mess around with where she spends her night-on-the-town money.

My corollary to this rule is to try to eat at places where people are cooking food that is native to their own ethnic group. If they grew up eating it there’s a greater chance that they might know how the hell it’s made.


Hell yes. The best barbecue sandwich I ever had was served in a paper wrapper on a styrofoam plate. For dessert we were served most excellent banana pudding in styrofoam drink cups :smiley:

never heard of El Rodeo but the only Mexican restaurant I eat at in Chapel Hill is Bandidos; the food is good although it can be greasy. I guess it passes the ethnicity test for employees but not customers in my experience; does that still count?

If you’re eating in a moderately nice or better restaurant (non-chain) the quality of the bread is always a tip-off. Good bread means good food. Doughy blah rolls mean indifferent entrées. Overly fussy zucchini-walnut-date-pesto bread means the chef will mix too many flavors together and ruin whatever is underneath. Nearly infallible.

Not to go on an all-out Chapel Hill derail, but Bandido’s is not considered among the people I know to be all that authentic (FWIW the guy who originally owned it, years ago, was from Colombia). It’s okay, they do some stuff well (I like the shredded beef), but IMO there are better places. If you get a chance, try Torero’s or, even better, Fiesta Grill.

I don’t care about authentic as much as what I like. And Bandidos is the cheapest place to go (for lunch anyway) and I already like it and don’t like trying new things

Heh, I didn’t figure anyone else would know that restaurant. This was in 1998 that I had that experience; I’d never been there before, nor did I return.

  1. When in doubt, order the house specialty. If they can’t make that taste good, they aren’t going to make anything taste good.

  2. Truck drivers don’t know the best restaurants; they know the restaurants with the biggest parking lots.

  3. In a new city, never eat in a restaurant chain that you can eat at back home. It’s pretty silly to travel 1000 miles to eat at an Applebee’s.

  4. There are certain places where it’s impossible to find bad restaurant food. So far, my list includes San Francisco, Montreal, Paris, and the Lexington Market in Baltimore.

  5. The longer a restaurant has been in business under the same management, the better it is likely to be.

  6. If a seafood restaurant doubles as a fish market, eat there.

  7. If a local restaurant or diner has its own left turn lane leading into it, eat there.

Oh, I thought of another one…

If a restaurant has a zillion items on the menu, from disparate schools of cooking (i.e., they have pasta dishes in one category and fajitas in another and “rice bowls” in yet another), there’s a good chance they might all be mediocre. It’s the classic “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” idiom.

A local new restaurant opened up a few years ago, and they had exactly this problem - a menu that read like a book, and nothing particularly tasty. They quite quickly pared down the menu, but they’re since gone under and re-opened. In some ways, you don’t even have to have much on the menu - just make what you have really, really good - people will come for one specific thing if you make the best thing in town, no problem.