It is 7:00 pm. This place is empty. In that instant we glance at one another as if to say “let’s get the hell out of here” and suddenly a young woman arrives to greet us: “Table for two?”
In that brief moment we missed our opportunity. We should have left.
We’ve all been there. As recently as two weeks ago, Steve and I happened upon such an occasion. As we approached the restaurant the owner was outside by himself enjoying a dessert on the front porch. This was our first sign that this might not go well. It continued to spiral downhill once inside with a combination of scratched-through menu items and unavailable wine. These factors in addition to an overall air of depression/desperation permeating the establishment led to a rather somber meal. The owner was basically waving his white flag outside the door. I only wish I could say we entered obliviously, but the truth is we knew and stepped right through the portal of doom anyway.
Which led Steve and I to two questions:
- How do you know when a restaurant is past it’s prime? Are there tell-tale signs that the joint has one foot in the culinary grave and is just going through the motions until someone puts it out of its misery?
- If you do get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, is it ok to leave?
First, I’ll address number 2: Can you leave? The short answer is yes, of course. You are choosing to spend your dining dollars at a business. By definition this is an at-will experience and if at any point (preferably prior to actually ordering although there are notable exceptions) you conclude that you’d prefer anethetic-free surgery to the meal in question, you can absolutely opt-out. Just remember to be respectful to the staff.
If there are multiple signs (and I don’t mean the hostess is seating another set of guests the second you grace the restaurant with your presence), then you can leave at one of a few pivotal moments either before or after you’ve been seated. You have not obligated them to making you any food or serving you drinks so I think you are free and clear to walk. If you have in fact ordered/received a drink, kindly pay the fare and be on your way.
Now for the more subjective issue of what precisely those signs are: An empty dining room in and of itself is not code for “the lights are about to be cut off.” If however you can check the boxes for multiple of the following, your no-so-good alarm should be sounding and you may want to reconsider spending your next hour here:
- The dining room is empty around 7pm, particularly if it is a Thursday-Saturday.
- It takes more than a minute or two for you to be greeted at the door by a representative of the dining establishment.
- There is a bar and no person is manning the bar.
- You are presented a menu where there are items crossed out. If they have a paper menu enclosed in one of those 1980’s clear plastic sleeves with the gold corners and they haven’t spent the time to reprint it with the current menu selections, walk out now. In fact, you have carte blanche to walk simply because of the presentation of the menu in the clear plastic sleeve.
- The server initiates conversation with a laundry list of 86ed items as opposed to daily specials.
- The atmosphere in general is dreary and more akin to a funeral rather than a nice, jovial evening.
The short of it is this: there are too many great restaurants in this city to spend your dollars triaging a dying patient. I am all for trying new places and taking chances but caveat emptor and trust your gut. This is your meal, your experience and your money. Spend it wisely my friends.