How to pick a restaurant that won't kill you.

When I was growing up, I was the official restaurant scoper-outer.  That means I was sent in to prospective restaurant, and I made the decision whether the family would eat there — or move on down the road.

This was a big responsibility for a kid, therefore, I had to develop some rules.  Restaurant rules to travel by.  And these rules hold true to this day, I still follow them.
Rule #1:  Never eat in a restaurant with a “help wanted” sign in the window.  This seems like a no brainer to me, but you’d be amazed at how many food establishments this simple rule weeds out.  If help is wanted (at least, advertised in broad view) that means one of three things:
A.  No cook 
B.  No server
C.  No bus person
And no matter who is missing in above multiple choice, it spells bad  meal.
Rule #2:  Never eat in a restaurant with a sign bigger than a billboard.  The bigger the sign, the crappier the food.  And if the sign is on a pole 82 feet in the air so it is visible to the highway exit, this is a bad omen, as far as I am concerned.  At least if you are in search of something better than Denny’s.  And, if sign says “EATS”, not good.  That means they keep changing the name of the restaurant because it keeps going out of business, and the “EATS” sign is generic enough to keep through multiple owners.  It’s called “Turn Key” in industry lingo
Rule #3:  If the front door hasn’t been cleaned in 82 years, neither has the kitchen.  Finger prints, dirt, grease, a random meal or two plastered to the glass:   run, do not walk.  Dirty windows equal nasty food.  
Rule #4:  If they demand a reservation, but there isn’t a person in the place, run, don’t walk to the nearby Denny’s.  Same mediocre food at half the price.  This happens to me at that hotel chain I love to hate:  MARRIOTT.  They can put up all the “Travel Brilliantly” websites they want.  It doesn’t matter.  They still have the world’s suckiest 5 star hotel (Ritz Carlton, LA Live, see previous blog post under this title).  You enter the hotel restaurant. Not a person to be seen.  “Do you have a reservation? No?  Well, we can accommodate you at the bar, SIR, since you are (tee-he) by YOURSELF.”  F*ck you, pinch face.  I hate sitting at the bar.  I’m heading to a real restaurant.
BY THE WAY, if this happens to you when traveling solo, here’s my perfect response:
“Oh, wow!  Is it cheaper at the bar?  No?  So why would I want to eat there?”
Rule #5:  Never order through a circle speaker.  Self explanatory.
Rule #6:  20′ Italian Restaurants are the best.  What is a 20′ Italian restaurant? These are typically found in New York, but may be in any major city.  They are 20′ wide, and 100′ deep, at least.  A cave.  On the wall is at least one picture of Jesus, crucified, and at least one picture of Elvis, before he got fat.  Pasta is always home made.  Tables have white cloths.  Bread is crusty.  Garlic is fresh.  These are heaven on earth.  Order pasta.
Rule #7: If the shrimp is frozen, don’t order sushi.  This is a tricky one.  Shrimp should not taste like fish, if it does, it’s been frozen.  As a rule of thumb, those restaurants serving shrimpy tasting shrimp have crappy sushi.  Just saying.  
Rule #8:  “Locals Eat Here”, “Locals Favorite”, “Best of ________, Unheard of Magazine”, etc., all mean average food — at best.  If they advertise “locals eat here”, they probably don’t — hoping to lure in travelers because said locals abandoned them long ago.
Rule #9:  Dim lighting.  This is fine for romance, or in a 20′ Italian Restaurant.  But BEWARE.  It can also mean dirt.  Real dirt.  Dirt you can see under a 20 watt bulb is filth.  So their solution?  Clean? No.  Just kill the 20 watt bulb.  Test for this by looking at the lights hanging from the ceiling.  Cobwebs?  Filth?  Christmas tinsel?  Run.
And, last but not least, Rule #10:  Home cooked meals.  This is code for:  Heat and Served by Sysco.  Have you ever eaten in a good restaurant advertising “Home cooked meals”?  I haven’t.  Maybe their home cooked meals badly.  But usually it’s nuked restaurant supply food, tipped off by Chicken Parmesan as a special of the day.  Sysco puts CP on special 24/7.
BONUS TIP:  If the ketchup on the table is “SYSCO” brand or “EXTRA FANCY”, this is a tip off to keep an eye out for rule 10.
Now, you may be thinking I am crazy.  Matthew does.  But he’s been badly tricked, which I remind him on every trip.  
The highway stretched before us, no end to the days travels from Lewes, DE to somewhere in South Carolina.  We were visiting family, and said family lived in bumfuck, nowhere.  Along the highway: nothing but pine trees.  GPS:  closest Cracker Barrel 72 miles.  Sigh.  I don’t even LIKE Cracker Barrel.
“There!”  Matthew said, excited, “Finally, a place to eat.”
“Honey, this violates one of my rules.”
“Don’t be a wimp.  For once, Just once, eat at a diner.  YOU WILL SURVIVE.”
“Cook Wanted” sign on nasty dirty door.  That means, before we even entered, THREE rules were broken: Rule 10, Rule 1 and Rule 3.
We ate.  I had fried chicken. I figure the hot grease will kill any bacteria, and would be safe.  It was paired with a lovely Sysco Mac and Cheese.  Matthew had tuna salad on wheat.
Matthew was sick about an hour after eating.  I had to drive the rest of the way to Bumfuck, SC, the entire time clamping my mouth shut.
“I told you so” was just on the tip of my tongue.  Must not rub it in.  Must keep silent.  
“Honey, how do you feel?  Want to stop for sushi?  Oh, LOOK!  There’s an amusement park!  Want to go on the roller coaster?”  (chuckle, I couldn’t resist)

Matt’s needs are simpler than mine.  He loves Bob Evans.  Me? I go for 20′ Italian restaurants.
I ate here twice: Rocky’s pub, Mansfield, Oh:  as close as you can get to a 20′ Italian Restaurant outside New York City.