12 Telltale Signs of a Great Restaurant

By Kelly Dobkin  |  September 16, 2015

When dining out, it's often those minor touches that act as bellwethers of quality: everything from what's in the bathroom to what's put on the table as soon as you sit down. We asked our readers and various food media to weigh in on the subtle signs of a good restaurant. What are those magic touches that separate a "good" restaurant from a "great" restaurant? Read on to find out.

1. The importance of bread

Restaurants: do not gloss over the importance of bread, because it was the No. 1 most mentioned attribute between commenters and writers. It should arrive fairly soon after you're seated and it should be warm and served with butter that's at just the perfect temperature (a trend that's on the wane these days). More often than not you're handed a a few cold crusty slices and a plate of olive oil, but seems like no one is a fan of this recent development despite its "rusticity." Oh, and those crumb scrapers. People go nuts for those. Restaurant group PR director Jamie Law shares: "I will never forget the first time I went to a TRULY fancy place and they used that little tool to clean up my crumbs in between dinner and dessert. WOW. Mind was blown. (I was obviously also very messy!)"

2. Water

Well-timed and plentiful water refills seem to be a requisite — almost everyone we asked mentioned they love when a restaurant refills their water without them having to ask, including commenters and Zagat contributors like Emily Saladino who sums it up: "I am a sucker for staff who always, unobtrusively keep water glasses refilled." Food writer Sara Ventiera loves when a restaurant offers free homemade sparkling water, a trend you'll often find in major cities like NY and LA. Free bubbly or not, most restaurants understand the importance of water. In fact, there's even a water sommelier at one LA hot spot.

3. Seamless plate clearing

There are two camps on the plate-clearing front. One thinks it's rude to clear a plate before everyone at the table is finished (Minor point: this has become less of an issue given the small-plates trend, and now restaurants clear away plates as they get polished off.) The second camp is cool if you take their plate if they're done. But both camps agree that the way that plates are cleared needs to be seamless: no one was a fan of bussers with bad timing who come back multiple times in a few minutes to ask if "you're still working?" The old saying applies here: good service is invisible.

4. Silverware

There's nothing worse than when you pile your dirty silverware on to a plate to be cleared and the busser tells you to "hang onto those!" New silverware between each course without asking for it seems to be the call. 

Photo: Lori Midson

5. What's in the bathroom?

Besides the obvious cleanliness and pleasing aesthetics, a legit restaurant bathroom will have nice bath products and those paper towels that feel like actual towels that you feel guilty throwing away. You know what we're talking about.

6. Solid basics

Some folks might tell you that you can judge a restaurant on how well it does a simple roast chicken. But one writer argues that it's the simple green salad that is often a bellwether of the chef's attention to detail:

"It may seem a silly thing to order mixed greens as an appetizer your first time at a restaurant, especially when there's grilled halloumi with fava beans on the menu. But this is, to me, the best way to judge a chef's talent. When the components are simple, you can really hone in on his or her treatment of each element. Color: is it a pale, austere iceberg salad? Or maybe it's a hefty dose of verdant parsley leaves? I want visual interest. Texture: when you add chunky cucumber coins or tomato, it weighs down the leaves, and becomes a chef's salad, of sorts. This is the mixed greens salad, and that's 95% of what it should be. Flavor: have you balanced any bitter greens you've thrown in the mix with some butter lettuces, to even things out? Have you added a couple shavings of pecorino, if some fat and salt are needed? Are the ratios of your dressing correct for the greens at hand? Seasoning: if you don't season your salad, it's a fail."  -Julia Bainbridge, freelance food writer

7. Anticipation

The service staff thinks of things before you do. When you drop a fork, someone sees right away and brings you a new one without having to ask. Scott on Twitter writes: "Conscientious questions pre-empting a possible need shows that they know their menu and guests - & that they care." Also, when a restaurant makes you flag down your server to get the check? That's high on the list of pet peeves and an anticipation fail.

8. Timing

In life, timing is everything, and in restaurants it's particularly critical. The kitchen doesn't send out your appetizers at the same time as your mains. If you order soup or a salad, it logically comes first without you having to ask. At a small-plates restaurant, the chef doesn't fire all eight dishes at once. Also, 20 minutes shouldn't pass by in between courses.

9. You're greeted warmly

Snooty front-of-house does not make for repeat customers, no matter how hot the restaurant may be. After a year or two, the buzz will fade and all those early bad impressions will result into empty seats.

Photo: Barbara L. Salisbury

10. The "right" kind of ketchup and ice.

While many folks are still divided on the ketchup camp (check out our Ketchup Wars mini-doc), several comments are adamant about having Heinz as the ketchup of choice. One commenter writes: "I HATE when restaurants try to make fancy ketchup. Heinz or bust." Even if it's not a chef's mandate, a good restaurant will have a few bottles of Heinz in the back. Equally, thanks to the artisanal cocktail trend, diners expect a certain type of ice in the cocktails: square or rectangular hunks, spherical or that trendy shaved stuff. Just another sign that the restaurant truly cares.

11. Noise level and music choices

Need we say more? You should be able to hear your dining companions and the music should fit the space and be well curated. 

12. Staff never gets defensive

There's nothing worse than when a mistake happens and the waitstaff doesn't take responsibility for it. Food writer Ali Rosen Gourvitch of Potluck video comments: "If something is wrong and you mention it, whether or not they are defensive versus going out of their way to fix it always signals to me the right kind of training."