It's an important question: How can you tell if a restaurant is good? Do you judge by friends' recommendations? By appearance? Price? The type of food the establishment is known for, or from what you can tell from its web site?
Lets just say you decide to go on someone else's recommendation to a fine dining restaurant. It's nice to splurge once in awhile, and these days more people are dining at home and watching their wallet. So, for a special occasion, everything should match our expectations--a good meal and a good deal.
How can you tell if you have made a good choice? Here are a few indicators.
1. Visit the restaurant's web site and study the menu. It should not be huge with an encyclopedia of dishes to choose from; this is a sure sign that the establishment relies on too many pre-made frozen or microwaved foods. A small menu is a good indicator that the food is prepared fresh. Also look to see if the restaurant is offering seasonal and local ingredients. That is a sign of the restaurant's commitment to good cooking.
2. Once you have made a choice and a reservation there are other indicators once you are seated. The wait staff should greet you appropriately, not with, "How you guys doin'?" Your wait person should be knowledgeable about all the dishes on the menu and be able to answer any questions you have without having to resort to "I'll ask the chef."
3. You should not feel rushed in placing your order, and the kitchen should be accommodating in making substitutions if you cannot eat or don't like a certain item on the menu.
4. The quality of the bread is a really good indicator of how serious the kitchen is about delivering their best. Pale looking, cottony tasting rolls are a dead give away that things will be just so so. But a basket of in-house baked rolls and a variety of breads says the restaurant is committed to your fine dining experience.
5. Attention to details like refilling water glasses and clearing dishes as they are used is also a good sign of in-house teamwork.
6. Salads should be lively and crisp, not wilted and tired looking (unless you ordered a wilted salad), and they should never be overdressed.
7. Nothing is worse than a "hot" dish arriving tepid or even cold.
8. Hovering over patrons by wait staff is annoying; yes, you want service to be impeccable but not over done.
The next time you are dining out you might just want to be aware of this checklist. Or, if you're the type to stay in and cook a great meal, find recipes at CiaoItalia.com.