How to Spot a Zero-Star Restaurant (Without a Review)

Is this a zero-star restaurant? Photo credit: StockFood

Chances are, you’ve dined at a subpar restaurant before. Perhaps you were even moved to write a negative Yelp review. But what separates a bad restaurant from a truly awful one? How can you tell that a restaurant will receive a zero-star review before some fancy critic ever sets foot inside?

Keep in mind that one misstep does not a zero-star review make. But every so often, a restaurant is so exquisitely awful that a reviewer has no choice but to throw his hands up and let loose a diatribe. (Recall Pete Wells takedown of Guy Fieri’s much-maligned Time Square eatery, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar? Ouch.)

We asked several food writers and restaurant industry folk onFacebook and Twitter how to spot a truly terrible restaurant. Apparently, they’ve had the misfortune of visiting quite a few of them:

Nasty waitstaff. "Hostile or lackadaisical service" can be a game ender for food writer Seánan Forbes. Amateurishness behavior is a no-no, too, including "shouting that’s audible from the kitchen."

But the worst? “A server who insults the diner,” said Yahoo Food editor Alex Van Buren. “This should be obvious, but it happens at the nicest places sometimes.”

Anything dirty. “Dirty flatware and stemware set off every red alarm in my body,” said Rochelle Bilow of Bon Appétit.

But there are some exceptions, noted Sam Haltiwanger, a bartender at Veritas Wine Bar in Washington, D.C. "Really amazing barbecue joints are often grimy, with sawdust all over the floor, and the only things regularly cleaned are table tops and dishware," he said. 

That said, follow your gut instinct: If a place looks unsanitary, hightail it out of there.

Disorganization. CNN’s Kat Kinsman hates walking into a restaurant and not knowing what to do. “There’s no one to greet me, tell me where to sit, no menu,” she recalled of one spot. “I’m constantly looking around for the server(s) and just feel stranded and anxious throughout.”

Ellen Kassoff Gray, co-owner of Equinox in Washington, D.C., agrees. “You know it when you arrive—the aroma of chaos swirls,” she said. Anything can be fixed, Gray continued, but not without the right perspective. “[“It’s] hard to teach that,” she said.

Plain old awful food. Here’s a harsh truth: A restaurant with terrible service but amazing food is always going to beat out a restaurant with amazing service but terrible food.

And you really know a restaurant is in trouble when the waiter can’t even muster any compliments for a dish. Case in point, a recent tweetfrom Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema.

Off to a sterling start at a new restaurant: Waiter just ticked off the 10 things he DOESN’T like on the menu,” he wrote.

Let that be a lesson, restaurants.