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.

    Best-sellers

    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.

    Meatloaf

    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. 

    Chicken

    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

    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.

    Edamame

    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.

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    Your Comments

    • NoChip4Me

      With bar snacks keep in mind not everyone washing their hands after using the rest room and then they sit down next to you and handle the same nuts you’re handling.

      • Jason Vene

        It’s been years since someone else handled ….

        …oh never mind…

    • Charlie Brown

      So we shouldn’t eat chicken, hamburgers, pizza, bread, seafood, saucy meals or meat with the bone in…. Why should we even go to a restaurant then

    • papa

      this really is a waste of space article.

      • tankeh

        The article isn’t but the author most certainly is a waste

    • guest1234

      But that’s all the good stuff yo.

    • Denise Michela O

      The person that wrote this article seems more interested in spending less money as possible! You are eating out, paying for the food, ambience and service. You could tell you never worked in a restaurant neither frequented nice one as you would see most restaurateurs take pride and would not put the health of guests at risk. I work in Uk and from the complimentary bread to the special covered in sauces food is fresh and never given to make it look expensive. What to eat in a restaurant? Food you can’t cook yourself at home or don’t have availability to! And mostly, if you are dining in company how much meat percentage your meatloaf contains is the last thing you should be concerned!

    • dd

      Germophobes… just because you’re BBQing doesn’t mean you’ll be dying from disease each time you do it.

    • Chris A.

      This is the type of customer that every chef, waitress, and restaurant owner wishes would just stay at home. I mean.. they’re bound to complain no matter what you give them.. so why not just eat at home? :l

    • Ben Hennessy

      How about you save us some time and PUT IT ALL ON ONE GODDAMN PAGE?!

    • dougie monty

      I would add spaghetti, in most restaurants. It’s been my experience that the very bottom of the spaghetti in the plate or bowl is watery, meaning the spaghetti was not properly drained. And sometimes, if the water is tasted, it seems like dishwater!

    • Ron Stone

      Having read this article, I would respectfully point out that Reader’s Digest needs to SERIOUSLY teach some of their writers how to write … or else get on their editors for publishing this dross.

      If any restaurant were to serve as this author seems to think they should, you wouldn’t be able to get a burger from the McPlace for less than $10. As some others have already mentioned here, the markups you might see between food cost and menu price do NOT go into the owner’s pocket. Most restaurants try to have a food cost margin of 25-30% of their operating budget. This budget includes paying their employees, paying utilities, taxes, permits, franchise fees if applicable, advertising, supplies AND the food itself.

      This is part of why food safety is so paramount in restaurants. If you have left over fried chicken at the end of a workday, so long as it has been kept in safe temps, it can be skinned, de-boned and cut up for use in other dishes like chicken and noodles. I could give other examples, but I think one gives you the idea. Dishes like meatloaf? Who DOESN’T put breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs or panko into their meatloaf? You don’t want meatloaf to be dense like a cut of beef, its SUPPOSED to be lighter. This is how families can take one pound of beef and make enough to feed a whole family (and have leftovers for sandwiches the next day!)