“Warning signs and how to spot a good restaurant in the wild”

That’s the title of an article by Australian journalist and “foodie” David Dale.  He’s been compiling lists of these signs and clues for over 30 years.  He writes:

I was inspired to start this project by the American food writer Calvin Trillin. He lamented then that when you’re travelling and you ask hotel receptionists to recommend an interesting local restaurant, they send you to tourist traps – steel and glass boxes spinning around on the top of skyscrapers or fake wood cottages with names like “Maison de la Casa House Continental cuisine”.

Trillin was particularly down on the word “continental”. His rules of thumb included: “If a restaurant says it offers ‘Continental cuisine’, inquire which continent they are referring to, and be wary if the continent is Australia.”

That was needlessly offensive, even in the days before Australia was a gastronomic powerhouse, so I decided to develop my own set of questions.

My list was designed primarily for Australians travelling within Australia, but I like to think most of the guidelines work equally well overseas.

When I’m travelling, I divide the world into Spontaneous countries and Research countries. Spontaneous countries have a culture of caring about the pleasures of the table, so visitors benefit from what the locals take for granted. You can drop into almost any eating place and be confident of getting a meal that is at least interesting. Examples are France, Italy, Spain and Thailand.

Research countries have a history of perceiving food as fuel, designed simply to build up strength for work. A visitor needs to do a lot of homework to find good cooking there. Examples are Britain and the US.

There’s more at the link.

Here are some excerpts from Mr. Dale’s current list of warning signs and criteria.

2. A restaurant with a pepper grinder on every table is likely to be good (as opposed to a restaurant where the waiters thrust a metre-long [yard-long] pepper grinder into your ear).

5. A restaurant where the waitstaff are required to wear archaic costumes is unlikely to be state of the art. Particularly pirates. And medieval serving wenches.

9. Restaurants more than 100 kilometres [about 62 miles] from the coast are unlikely to specialise successfully in seafood.

14. A restaurant with a pun in its name and puns all over its menu may take its cooking equally seriously – except for Thai restaurants, where a pun in the title is mandatory.

16. The number of spelling errors on a menu is inversely proportional to the quality of the cooking.

21. A restaurant that lists four pasta shapes in one column and four sauces in another column, and invites you to “mix ‘n’ match”, is unlikely to be run by an Italian.

There are many more at the link.  From my somewhat more limited experience (African bush food being the exact opposite of cordon bleu in far too many cases!), I can attest that many of his criteria are pretty much what I’ve found, too.

Oh, yes – riddle me this, please, fellow Americans.  Why on earth do so many people refer to catfish and crawfish as “seafood” – not to mention river or lake fish as well?  They’ve mostly never been within a good country mile of the sea!  I was raised to use the term “seafood” to refer to the harvest of the sea itself – saltwater fish, shellfish, etc.  However, almost every American restaurant I’ve been to lists freshwater fish, etc. among its seafood dishes.  Very strange!

That conundrum aside, Bon appetit!



  1. If you think river and lake fish being listed as seafood is bad, you should see the menu that places chicken tenders under the heading "Fried Seafood."

  2. Great list except this:

    13. Never eat in a restaurant that has a souvenir shop attached.

    I shan't be denied my Cracker Barrel Uncle Hershel Breakfast!

  3. Why care about state of the art? I want my food to taste good, and if that means very traditional, I'm fine with that.

    I also really don't care about plating and presentation. Restaurants that are more concerned about how food looks than how it tastes get a no from me.

  4. When traveling I would ask the hotel staff for restaurant recommendations and invariably get directions to Applebees or the like.

    So, I started phrasing the question this way: "If you moved away for 10 years, what's the first place you'd go when you got back?"

    Haven't had a bad meal on the road since.

  5. Greasy spoons… ALWAYS go for the greasy spoon. And if you want correct ethnic, look to see who is coming/going. However, if it's Thai, and you see Thais in there, BEWARE the heat scale… One pepper in Thailand is the equivalent of 3-4 peppers in a US Thai place…

  6. Face it folks, unknown and one-off restaurants on the road are a crap-shoot.

    If you ever wonder why there is such a proliferation of chain restaurants in this country, that's part of it. A chain restaurant is a known entity. It's not the best food, but it will do in a pinch when you are tired and just want dinner and then bed.

    Now, having said that, some of the best food I have ever eaten has come from little hole-in-the-wall, mom & pop places I have found while traveling. The flip side is that some of the worse has come from there too.

  7. Simple enough, seafood sounds classier than just fish.
    And certainly more appealing than cooking up a mess of mudbugs.
    I grew up ten miles from the Mississippi river in north western Illinois.
    Grandma loved to fish, and grandpa didn't mind cleaning them.
    We didn't care all that much for catfish, but every summer weekend they would bring back a stringer full of pan fish: perch, crappie, bluegill, sunfish and the like.
    Grandpa would carve off two palm sized fillets and place them in saved waxed cardboard milk containers.
    Those were filled with water and frozen. Fish scraps went straight into his garden for fertilizer.
    When enough containers had accumulated they would be thawed and the fillets dusted with flour and fried in grandma's huge old cast iron skillet in oil.
    Heaping platters of fried fish all of it one or two bites.

  8. Years ago I read a list of hints to help you find a good BBQ restaurant. I remember very few but a few are:
    – A variety of vehicles in the parking lot. A Rolls Royce parked next to a garbage truck is a very good sign.
    – A messy wood pile. It was most likely knocked over in the dark fetching wood for the smoker.
    – Old calendars behind the register.
    – Flies. It it's not good enough to draw flies stay away.

    I once ate at a restaurant in Dallas just because of the name. Bob's Pinto Bean Palace. It was dreadful but how could you not give it a shot, once.

    I do look at the cars at a restaurant when sizing it up.

  9. "If you moved away for 10 years, what's the first place you'd go when you got back?"

    It isn't quoted in the post, but Calvin Trillin famously put it this way to hotel folks: "Not the place you took your parents for their 25th wedding anniversary. The place you went the night you got home from Korea."


  10. Before you order anything, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. If it's dirty, imagine what the kitchen is like.

  11. I learned in Italy that if the restaurant had pictures of the food outside, it was a no-go. Oddly enough, Yelp was a great help in finding the true 'neighborhood' places, along with following the older women towing their husbands along to dinner–I found some truly amazing places where the staff gave me some startled looks when I walked in–because clearly it wasn't a tourist trap.

  12. A sign that reads 'Good Eats', in whatever language, usually draws me in if only for curiosity' sake. The best German food I've consumed (OK, American German; never having been to Germany I can't speak to its 'authenticity') was from a little place near Boston Common. I was wandering around when approaching lunchtime and espied a hand-lettered sign advising, "Gutes Essen", across the street. And it very much was.

  13. We got a new Thai restaurant down the road a piece. They named it "Thai Me Up". Wife and I found it pretty tasty.

  14. Author William Least Heat Moon's first book was titled Blue Highways, it was the story of a trip around the USA in a cargo van, and took months to complete. Heat Moon ate mostly at diners, and his tip on how to find a good one was to count how many calendars could be seen on the walls,with 1 being poor, 2 being good, and three being excellent.

    I have a friend that only eats in barbecue restaurants if the street sign features an "anthropomorphic pig."

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