How to spot a dirty restaurant before it's too late

Listening to your gut may not be enough

It may be a stretch to say that cleanliness is next to godliness, but a tidy restaurant is a must for most people enjoying a meal out on the town.

Whether you’re seated at a little mom-and-pop diner or at a four-star restaurant, nothing can ruin the experience faster than unsanitary conditions. That can be something as minor as a sticky menu or as major as the cockroach infestation that forced the closure of a downtown Edmonton dim sum restaurant.

Here, chef Troy Lymburner (Cooking ’92), a Culinary Arts instructor who teaches food-industry health and safety, offers tips for diners who want to ensure their chosen eating establishment is keeping it clean.

dirty restaurants patioCheck the patio

First impressions can be meaningful. If the restaurant has an outdoor seating area, give it a look. Are the open tables messy? Is there food on the ground? If the outdoor space is being neglected, that’s a sign that the cleaning regimen inside might also be cutting corners.

“If they’re not being cleaned in a timely manner or there are spills on the table and things like that, that can raise a red flag,” Lymburner says.

Check the interior

“Watch for little things with regard to maintenance issues,” Lymburner advises. Among those, he notes peeling carpet, beat-up furniture, cracks in the ceiling, smudges on the walls and – eww – “visible bugs.”

Is that dim lighting really for atmosphere, or is it just to cover up the neglect?

Is that dim lighting really for atmosphere, or is it just to cover up the neglect?

dirty restaurants, dirty toilet“If they’re not willing to keep the customer areas looking their best then it’s more than likely the kitchen is not going to fare much better.”

Scout the washrooms

“Chefs and colleagues agree one way to gauge a restaurant’s cleanliness is to take a look at how they clean the washrooms,” Lymburner says.

“Normally, if the washrooms are not up to par or dirty and unkempt then more than likely the rest of the restaurant is going to follow suit.”

If the washroom has hot water, soap and paper towels, it’s at least a good sign that the hand washing stations in the kitchen are also properly outfitted.

Peek into the open kitchen

The emergence of open kitchens has made it easy for customers to check out the sanitation conditions where the dishes are being prepared, dirty restaurants dirty menuas well as the professionalism of the staff. Don’t be afraid to take a look.

Examine the state of the table

“Every operation is going to have challenges in their dishwashing from time to time,” Lymburner says. But there’s no excuse for a set of dirty cutlery or spots on the glasses. Same goes for a visibly dirty menu.

How do the servers look?

They’re the ones who will be handing you your food, so take a close look, right down to their fingernails. Dirty uniforms are a clear sign of low standards of cleanliness.

dirty restaurant, dirty waiter“That’s one thing we preach all the time with our students,” Lymburner says. “The servers are really an extension of the restaurant owner. They should be well-groomed and well-spoken. It’s a direct reflection of the restaurant.”

“The servers are really an extension of the restaurant owner."

Exercise your right of refusal

“If you find something wrong with your food – for example, a hair or something just tastes off – you have every right to refuse the food,” Lymburner says.

“You are the customer. You’re paying for goods and service and, if you are finding that those goods and service are not up to your expectation, you have every right just to say no. The restaurant should work that out.”

Take a glance in advance

If you’d rather apply more formal criteria to deciding on a safe place to eat, Alberta Health Services maintains a database of its recent restaurant inspection reports. Restaurant patrons can also file complaints with the department’s Environmental Public Health division.

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