How to pick a restaurant: the clean-door test

Rules of Thumb is a fine website for those of use who enjoy proxy metrics, the things you use to judge when you can’t judge the real thing.

Picking a restaurant is an obsession on the site. One rule of its many rules is attributed to CBS’s Andy Rooney, who suggests you avoid cute names because owners aren’t serious about food. Other users believe that newspaper reviews in the window signal a restaurant that’s neither too bad nor too snooty. Still others believe a “high class” joint is good. The smartest one, though, says you should look first at the restroom.

There is a better way. My ex-wife managed restuarants for 22 years and knows the game. Put her anywhere in the world and the odds are 10 to 1 she’ll pick a good restaurant.

She says you have to keep in mind one thing: the biggest single factor in a restaurant’s quality is the attention to detail. Two restaurants with the same payroll, the same dining room, and the same ingredients can have much different quality. The difference is whether someone on staff is really paying attention.

Attention means keeping an eye on everything, even the small things. The quality-assurance route runs through the kitchen, the dining room and outside. A clean door, well-tended plants, and clean windows show that someone cared enough to keep them that way.

Next, see if the menu matches the season. Then go inside and sniff. Does it smell good? Do people seem happy?

The attention to what seems trivial indicates the level of attention paid to what you don’t see, such as ingredient selection, food storage and cooking.

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