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This Is What a Celebrity Chef Looks for in a Restaurant

We caught up with some of the culinary world's top chefs to find out what they like to see on a menu—and the red flags that make them run for the hills.

Young african american woman waitress taking orders from clients in cafeLightField Studios/Shutterstock

First impressions are everything

“When I walk into a restaurant, am I greeted in a timely, professional yet warm manner?” asks former Food Network Iron Chef Cat Cora, of Cat Cora’s Kitchen & Taproom in airports across the United States. “First impressions are crucial.”

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Ask questions before you sit

Being inquisitive is your best defense against a bad meal, says Cora. “Is the waitstaff on point, professional, and knowledgeable about the food and beverage menus?” If they don’t know their menu inside and out before you sit, good luck getting them to pay close attention to your order, allergies, and special requests. Restaurants with informed waitstaff and servers are more likely to get celebrity chefs sitting at their tables and tipping big when they’re not working. Check out this list of things restaurant owners wish they could tell you.

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Appealing lighting transforms the experience

Maybe the restaurant in question is known for their light, bright, and airy take on modern fare, or maybe they’re known as the most romantic candlelit dinner joint in town, but either way, well-thought-out lighting is a major draw for celebrity chefs like Cat Cora. “Is the decor and lighting attractive and updated?” she asks. “It should add to a comforting energy that I’ll find appealing when I’m sitting to eat.”

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Clean bathrooms very often equal clean kitchens

Chef Seth Levine—a former contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen: Season 5” and current executive chef at Penthouse808 Asian Pacific Bistro—says cleanliness is king. “Appearance and cleanliness of the restaurant overall are very important,” he says. In some cities, he notes, you can look up letter grades from the local board of health that are based primarily on cleanliness. “You can check this prior to even going to the restaurant,” says Levine. “With very few exceptions I wouldn’t eat in any restaurant without an A grade.” Don’t miss these secrets your restaurant server isn’t telling you.

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Celeb chefs look at online reviews just like the rest of us

“The first thing I do when eating in an unfamiliar place is to check the online reviews,” Levine explains. “I take them all with a grain of salt, no pun intended, but I look out for the same positive or negative reviews. Consistent reviews of the same thing probably have some truth to them.”

young business girl studying the menu in restaurant decorated with Christmas decor.sits near the window on cloudy winter day at wooden table.Dressed in warm gray sweater.On the table,phone and glassesfotoliza/Shutterstock

Size matters

“Is the menu a huge encyclopedia of top ten lists, or is it small and carefully curated, featuring only the best, freshest, local ingredients?” asks Rocco DiSpirito, celebrity chef and author of Rocco’s Healthy + Delicious. “A large crowd-pleaser menu, that has everything from tacos to sushi to spaghetti carbonara is probably going to disappoint on execution.” There’s another way size matters: These are the eight unhealthiest meals you can order in a restaurant.

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Beware of cookie-cutter establishments

“Does the restaurant have a personality or does it feel like it was inspired by a Disney theme?” wonders DiSpirito when he walks into a new eatery. “When a great chef or restaurateur creates a concept, they imbue it with their taste, their vibe, their ideas, and you should be able to feel it immediately. There should be visual or sensory cues like art and music that tell a story.” For something out of the ordinary, check out these 10 restaurants where you can have the weirdest dining experiences in the world.

Couples enjoying lunch at a busy restaurantMonkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Personal space is the best flavor in town

Chef Rocco obviously loves a clean, well-appointed eatery, but also suggests that a restaurant’s ambiance has a lot to do with whether or not expert diners such as himself will sit for a meal. “A restaurant is a crowded, noisy room by design. A restaurant can make you feel like you are a fly on the wall or part of the party.”

Bryce Gruber
As Home Editor, Bryce Gruber is an expert in gift ideas, shopping, and e-commerce at Reader's Digest. You've likely seen her work across a variety of women's lifestyle and parenting outlets and on TV shows. She lives and works in New York's Hudson Valley with her five small children.