Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and bad things can happen to good restaurants too. Unfortunately, even the best restaurants can sometimes have an off night.
• City Pages: 6 signs you're about to have a bad restaurant experience
But there are some tell-tale signs that diners can learn to sniff out before having to sit down to a wholesale bad experience, and possibly save themselves some money and wasted time.
1. Environmental cues: A good restaurant experience should start the second you walk through the door. Is the environment pleasant? Are the lighting and music or noise level to your liking? If it's way too loud or the lights are too bright for your comfort, know that those things are not going to get any better as the night goes on. You can tell a lot just from the first couple of minutes of being in a place. Listen to your gut regarding whether you want to stay.
2. Greeting: Even if a host or a server is otherwise engaged, it doesn't take anything to look up from what they're doing, make eye contact, smile and say "Welcome! I'll be right with you!" Honestly, if I could pinpoint one thing about how your experience is going to go in a restaurant, I'd say it starts with the greeting. If you're not acknowledged within, say, the first 2 or 3 minutes of being inside, get the heck out of there.
3. The menu: Make sure you check the price points. If you're a beer or wine drinker, you probably know roughly what those labels should fairly cost. If they're wildly overpriced, you might want to leave now. Menu items should appear not just appetizing, but they should also have "flow." Ask yourself, does the menu have a point-of-view, or are the chefs trying to do to many things? A menu, like your host and the vestibule, are all first points of entry. You can find out a lot from them before forging ahead with a meal.
4. Ask questions: A good server should be thoroughly knowledgeable about the menus. If there are questions they do not have the answer to, they should cheerfully volunteer to find out. Even if you think you know the answer to a question, don't be afraid to toss a few out. And if a server says "I don't know," and leaves it there, that's a bad sign.
Eating out is supposed to be fun and enjoyable, and restaurants have a responsibility to make it that way as best as they can. But it's a two-way relationship sort of thing. And like most things in life, you've got to advocate for yourself, too.
Arm yourself with a little bit of knowledge, be confident and it can go a long way toward enjoying your overall restaurant experiences more often.
Mecca Bos, the City Pages food critic, recently wrote a guide for handling bad restaurant experiences.
Listen to Bos' chat with All Things Considered host Tom Crann using the audio player above.