Consistency is the goal of all restaurants. The hope is that you'll have as good an experience when the restaurant opens as when the next generation takes over the place. The reality is that service can be spotty, even at great restaurants.
When I was a waiter in high school, I had a ceiling of five tables. But once the sixth was seated, my section of the dining room was doomed. It was dinner roulette. One table was getting horrible service, but nobody -- myself included -- knew which one it would be. Over the years, however, I've learned to identify five signs that indicate service on a given night won't be going very well.
5. You sit down without menus. Whether it's five or 15 minutes, the menu either needs to be waiting for you or handed to you as you sit down. If you're a forgotten table from the start, it's rare that a restaurant is going to turn around that first impression.
4. Dirty flatware or silverware. Cleanliness is next to edibleness. And dirty utensils or plates are a big turnoff. It's also a sign that a restaurant may be slammed or simply has a dishwasher who didn't show up that night.
3. Your server's shirt looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. If you stack a few plates on your arm, you might get a spot or two on your shirt from an errant bit of sauce. But the only nights my shirt came close to being ruined were those nights when I was moving too quickly. If my tie fell in a bowl of soup, it was only a matter of time before I forgot to bring your refill.
2. Your server disappears. Servers rarely get breaks during shifts. Some might sneak a cigarette or a quick phone call, but the reality is that if the restaurant is busy, you're on your feet for your entire shift. But if you haven't seen your server in the dining room for 10 minutes -- at your table or any other table -- you can assume it's not your table's night.
1. You get someone else's bread basket. It's nice to break bread with friends. It's not nice to receive bread that has already been broken by a stranger. A bread basket that gets brought back out to the dining room instead of dumped in the trash is the top indicator that you should think about heading down the street.
What else tells you it's just not a restaurant's night?