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04/21/2014 01:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2014

5 Ways to Tell if You're in a Bad Restaurant

We've all been there, standing outside a restaurant, trying to figure out if it's going to be any good. We all know that you can't judge a book by its cover but without even trying the food, there are hosts of ways to tell if the restaurant you've chosen to spend your hard-earned money at is worth it. We've rounded up some of the best common-sense approaches to figure out if you're dining somewhere that's actually decent.

While sussing out a restaurant that we're not familiar with, there's a mental checklist we go through, sometimes subconsciously, before setting foot inside. First we look at the signage and overall exterior design: Is it new and sleek or old, outdated, and rusty? Oftentimes, these are no indicator of how the food will be (a restaurant that hasn't changed in 30 years is a rarity and could be a local gem, while the shiny new place could be a total DOA dud), but they certainly say something about the overall type of restaurant. If there's a menu on display, we'll peruse it and see if it's in our price range and if any dishes sound like something we'd typically order. Finally, we might take a peek inside to see if there's anyone else dining in there, because nobody wants to be the only people in a restaurant.

But once we've made our commitment to spend our money, it's up to fate to decide whether or not we've made the right decision. And while certain purchases immediately let us know if we've made the right choice or not (it didn't take very long to realize buying that cheaper off-brand ketchup was a bad idea), a poor restaurant experience takes its time, unfurling over the course of a meal. A couple glitches here and there can be a minor nuisance in an otherwise spectacular meal, but string a whole bunch of them together and you've officially made a poor dining decision.

So for that reason, we've assembled a checklist of 11 things to be on the lookout for at a restaurant. If one or two of these happen to transpire during your meal, it's okay to write it off. But if more than 50 percent of the items on our list are checked off, there's really no reason to ever go back, unless the food was mind-blowingly spectacular and you're willing to sacrifice some creature comforts for it. So how can you tell if you're in a restaurant you'll regret going to later? Read on to find out, and keep our checklist in your mental back pocket the next time you spring for a new spot.

  • 1 The Bathroom is Gross
    You head to the restroom to wash up after placing your order, and it’s a mess. Once again, if the public areas in a restaurant are dirty, it’s a sign that the kitchen will be as well. And most restaurants only have one restroom, so if there’s no soap in the dispenser, that probably means that nobody in the kitchen is washing their hands with soap, either. Photo Credit: moodboard/ thinkstock Click Here to see More Ways You Can Tell if You’re in a Bad Restaurant
  • 2 The Food is Gross
    Obviously, this is the big one. There’s a lot we can let slide in a restaurant, but gross food is the ultimate deal-breaker. Is it over or undercooked? Is it seasoned properly? Does it taste like it’s gone bad? If something doesn’t taste good, you’ll know it immediately. If it’s an obvious result of an error in the kitchen, you’re within your rights to send it back and order something else, as long as you can explain to your server what you don’t like about it (and it’s a more egregious error than ‘I don’t like tomatoes’). If nobody at the table particularly enjoys what they’re eating, even if it’s not particularly offensive, then you have no real reason to return, even if everything else is spot-on. Photo Credit: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock
  • 3 The Bill is Larger than it Should Be
    If you’re paying $25 for a hearty portion of housemade filled pasta, tossed in a fresh-made veal ragu and kicked up by a splash of brandy and topped with freshly grated Parm, then the manpower and ingredients that went into it most likely justify the price tag. If you’re paying the same amount of money for an overcooked piece of chicken breast on a roll with some melted cheese and fries on the side, then you’ve been ripped off and should have probably looked for a restaurant that wasn’t right in the middle of Times Square. Expensive ingredients and labor-intensive dishes will cost more, and unless it’s all been microwaved you should be okay with shelling out a little more for it. If it’s a blatant price gouge because you’re in a touristy area, then there’s no excuse. Photo Credit: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock Click Here to see More Ways You Can Tell if You’re in a Bad Restaurant
  • 4 They Don’t Take Credit Cards (and Don’t Tell You Outright)
    This one’s a major pet peeve. If a restaurant is cash-only, they should be upfront about it from the minute you sit down. You should probably assume that the slice joint is cash-only (or know that Peter Luger is before you go in), but at a sit-down restaurant we all expect to be able to pay with a credit card, and if you can’t your server should tell you before you order. If you find yourself having to scramble to the nearest ATM while your date waits uncomfortably, you should reconsider returning if you aren’t already. Photo Credit: images/ thinkstock
  • 5 Nobody Says Goodbye
    The wait staff’s job is technically over once you pay your bill, but that doesn’t mean that they should ignore you once their work is done. A simple “goodnight” from the host on your way out can be a great capper to a solid meal. Photo Credit: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock Click Here to see More Ways You Can Tell if You’re in a Bad Restaurant

-- Dan Myers, The Daily Meal

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