13+ Things You Shouldn’t Eat at a Restaurant

We surveyed dozens of people in the restaurant biz on what they never, ever touch, whether its to avoid outrageous markup, food poisoning, or germ minefields. Watch for these offenders.

By Sheri Alzeerah
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    Iceberg lettuce

    The iceberg wedge salad is one of the industry’s biggest rip-offs. Take into account that iceberg lettuce is about 98 percent water, and it’s easy to see why. “It's marked up at least 20 times,” says Peter Chastain, executive chef and owner of California’s Prima Ristorante. Plus, germs can hide inside lettuce’s cracks, corners, and edges. “You think lemons in water are dirty? The salads are filthy,” Cannon says. Even if restaurants do decide to wash their greens, the lettuce is often served soggy, which is big red flag—standing water mixed with lukewarm, mayo-based dressing is a disaster waiting to happen.


    You might think best-selling items have high turnover. But to keep up with demand, fast-food restaurants and some other places pre-make their top sellers, which gives these wrapped and bagged choices plenty of time to develop food-borne illnesses. Instead, opt for the less popular options which are more likely to be prepared to order, says Howard Cannon, CEO of Restaurant Expert Witness and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting A Restaurant, who adds, “Anything sitting in holding, covered with mayonnaise, is probably not that great."

    Tap water

    "One of the most dangerous items in a restaurant is water,” Cannon says, although anything that sits between 40 degrees to 140 degrees for more than a short time has a high potential to harbor bacteria. If your table is already set with a carafe of water, or you're handed anything warmer than ice-cold, ask for a new glass.

    Free bar snacks

    Since these nuts, pretzels, and other munchies are free of charge, restaurants and bars often don’t set out a fresh serving for each new customer. It's like eating out of a stranger's hand! Then at closing time they're dumped back into a container, to be re-poured into dishes the next day.  

    Meat with the bone in

    Small cuts of meat, like bone-in pork or chicken breasts, are harder to cook thoroughly because their outsides easily char. This often translates to crispy on the outside and raw on the inside. Unlike undercooked beef—say, a rare burger or a steak tartare—undercooked pork and chicken are highly dangerous and could causes food-borne illnesses, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, bone-in means less meat.

    Sauced-up specials

    To avoid running out of ingredients during the dinner rush, restaurants often order more food than they need. At the end of the day, surplus ingredients that haven't expired can turn into tomorrow’s specials, disguised with sauce. “Watch out for an expensive item used in a way that's minimizing its flavor,” says Stephen Zagor, founder of consulting firm Hospitality & Culinary Resources, in Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. Be wary of meat that's been cut, braised, and disguised in a pasta, stew, or soup dish.

    DIY grilling

    Restaurants with a built-in-grill dining table sound like fun. But: “Braised food from a steam table is fraught with peril—sneezing customers, improper cooking,” says Chastain. One Korean BBQ joint in Las Vegas shut down after earning an astoundingly disgusting 53 demerits from the Southern Nevada Health District. Leave the cooking to the chefs.


    First, there's often more filler than meat, but restaurants think if they drown the dish in enough sauce and seasoning, you won't notice. To help sell it further, many menus use descriptive words like “homemade,” “home-cooked,” “home-style,” or worst of all, “Mom’s.” Don’t insult your mama! Order a burger or a steak.

    "From-there" seafood

    Unless the joint is known for its seafood, there’s no guarantee you're going to get what's on the menu. “About 70 percent of the time, for example, those Maryland crab cakes weren't made using crabs from the Chesapeake Bay,” says James Anderson, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island, in Wall Street Journal’s SmartMoney. And while the kitchen might swap snapper for a cheaper tilapia, many times the distributors do a bait and switch, too. 

    “Gourmet” Burgers

    By working in one expensive ingredient in small batches (see: truffle oil, fois gras), many customers are cheated into believing they’re getting a taste of highbrow fare for a relatively low price. Beware: Most commercial truffle oils are created by mixing olive oil with a lab-produced chemical. Zagat ranked truffle oil as one of the eight most overrated ingredients, comparing the oil to trendy fashion labels: "it’s obnoxious, overpriced, and made with cheap material."

    Ice cream

    Unless it’s exotic or made in-house, it’s not worth your time, money, or caloric intake. “The idea of dropping big dollars in a restaurant to pay for the same brand I can get from the local grocery doesn’t make me want any,” says Mark Ladisky, senior operations consultant for Synergy Restaurant Consultants. 


    He who orders chicken is, in terms of ordering outside the box, a chicken. “There is typically nothing unique about the preparation that is worth my attention on the menu,” says Ladisky. It's also cheap meat that gets marked up substantially. Be bolder.


    Pizza is a gold mine for restaurants: cheap ingredients and big mark-ups. So buying pizza from a restaurant that isn’t dedicated to doing it right is a waste of money and tomatoes, according to Ladisky. “I can’t recommend throwing money away on a slightly upgraded freezer-section pizza baked in a toaster oven,” he says. One New York City pizzeria spends $3.64 on ingredients for a margherita pizza and sells it for $10—that's a 300 percent markup.


    Though it might be the cheapest appetizer on the menu, it’s never worth as much as it costs. A giant 12-oz. steamable bag of edamame at the grocery store will run you the same price on average, if not cheaper. And all that goes into preparing edamame is a little heating up. 

    Bread baskets

    A basket of bread is a restaurant standby—and more importantly, a complimentary restaurant standby. Don’t be duped into doling out a few bucks, even if it's artisan-quality.


    Your Comments

    • Sam

      Why don’t they just say do not eat out.
      What is left to eat after going through this list???

    • Toaster

      OK, I am a former restaurant owner that did a lot of the cooking and kitchen management early on. What a load of crap. Just because the actual cost of the food for a restaurant is low, does not mean that the item being purchased (like Pizza) is not worth what is charged. The very fact that the item is cooked for you, served to you in a building that has overhead costs and liabilities, people just don’t get get the costs involved in running a restaurant. And YES I washed all the lemons, limes and oranges that were sliced up for drinks, The salads were washed thoroughly and NO Wedges were served because they could not be washed. Good chicken takes as much effort to prepare as a steak. A decent stew takes as much effort to prepare ad a good soup, maybe more. Just because some things are made ahead (or components thereof) does not mean they are saturated in bacteria. Jeez, This article bashes almost everything in any restaurant. If a good restaurant has been in business for a while, odds are they have not killed anyone. and as far as cost, you know that going in, and if the menu prices are too high, you can leave. You choose to eat in whatever restaurant you choose, High priced, or low, it is your choice. I have even worked fast food and I tell you the quality of the food was excellent and rigorously tested and monitored throughout the day. Yes there some folks out there trying to make a buck at the expense of the customer, but they are not in business for long. Repeat business, and word of mouth are the only advertising I ever did. If you see a TV ad for restaurant that is not new or a “grand opening”…. there is a reason. When I go into a restaurant, order a draft beer, and a burger or pizza, I KNOW that this will cost me more than a frozen pizza and a canned beer in front of the tube (well, flat screen now-a-days) at home. It is my choice.

    • Joss

      Eff you…this is the most retarded list of non-worrrisome foods I’ve ever seen. Get over it you stupid cun7$.

    • rlj

      Eating out is about eating what you feel like at that moment if it is worth the price to get it prepared for you when you want it – if you want to consider margins, eat at home.

    • schill

      This article is the same as thousands of others, penned at the expense of “restaurant goers”. After 25 years in F&B, I can unequivocally say, “BULL!”. Some of this is partially correct, in that we strive to give refreshing tasty meals at a price those who frequent our rooms can afford. We often prep volume and cool it safely for consumption later.
      We are so tired of listening to this stuff. Leave it alone. We look after our food and customers very well. Our future depends on doing so.

    • Mochipants

      This whole article just seems petty and alarmist. Reusing cuts of meat into a stew or stock to be used for the next day is just good business practice. As for the water and meatloaf items, it’s absurd. Never heard of a meat loaf without either bread crumbs or egg, which is by definition, filler.

    • golfballtx

      Not too good with arithmetic, either. $10 sell price/$3.64 ingredients is 174% markup, not 300%.

    • Wanda

      All of you who are worried about the markup need to stay home and stop eating out so much. Problem solved. Plus you can clean your own lettuce, etc. Oh wait, someone else is doing the work!

    • Mira8

      So, basically, never leave your home or spend money ever.

    • everlearn

      At a $3.64 food cost for a $10 pizza, he’s losing money. Food cost is 1/3, labor 1/3, gross profit, 1/3. I know, I own a restaurant. Out of the gross profit comes lights, rent, taxes, other utilities, licenses, etc. Who ever wrote this is a nitwit.