Sometimes, you just have a feeling from the street that a restaurant isn't for you: forced valet cordoning off an otherwise-empty lot, or perhaps a surfeit of BMWs parked outside when you only have $10 in your wallet for a meal.
Often, however, it's not until you set foot inside the restaurant -- and it's very nearly too late -- that you realize you're going to be miserable for every single minute of your meal. I'm an advocate of turning on your heel and hitting the road instead of subjecting yourself to a meal in these places, but sometimes you have no choice other than grinning and bearing it.
These are the five biggest deal-breakers in a restaurant's ambiance, the things that -- apart from food and service -- will ruin a meal. And these are things which I encounter on a regular basis working my way through the city. Restaurants, take heed; these ambiance-killers are all easily fixed, and I'm not naming names...today.
5. Unbussed tables
Whether you're in the weeds or have an empty house, there is no excuse for dirty tables greeting customers as they walk in. It sends up red flags at once: If you don't care about cleaning your client-facing surfaces, do you care about cleaning the parts diners don't see? If your service can't be bothered to bus tables, can it be bothered to wait on customers? If your employees don't care about working in a dirty restaurant, will they care about the food that's being served? Hire an extra busser. Bus those tables yourself. But whatever you do, do not ever force a customer to bus their own table before they can even sit down to eat.
4. Dirty bathrooms
See pretty much all of the previous entry, re: unbussed tables. Your bathrooms are often a direct reflection of the cleanliness of the rest of the restaurant. And yes, I know that customers can often be filthy beasts and leave hideous messes in restrooms; I've had to clean feces off two separate bathroom stalls myself. It doesn't matter -- keep your bathrooms clean. And for Charmin's sake, make sure it's at least stocked with toilet paper, soap and paper towels.
3. Loud music
I once walked into my friendly neighborhood ice cream parlor to find the speakers blaring Cannibal Corpse. Have you heard Cannibal Corpse? My college boyfriend loved that band, so unfortunately I've heard more than my fair share of "Hammer Smashed Face" and "Addicted to Vaginal Skin." I'm pretty sure that the four-year-olds in the ice cream shop that day didn't need to, however. No matter what kind of music you're playing -- appropriate for the setting or not -- it never needs to be at ear-shattering decibels. Same goes for whatever live band you've hired for the evening. People are at your restaurant to eat, not be ear-hammered by your specific tastes in music.
2. Climate out-of-control
Houston's weather is difficult to combat; that's an absolute. But often restaurants overcompensate for the heat, leaving diners freezing to their chairs and desperate to escape back into the sun. The bigger sin, however, is failing to provide adequate A/C during the summer. Big, notable restaurants fight this battle as often as the little guys too; it's an egalitarian issue, if nothing else. But if you've just given up and are content to let your diners sweat into their plates of enchiladas, there's no reason they shouldn't give up on you too. And they will.
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1. Foul odors
That distinct wet toilet smell is occasionally the result of a faulty sewage line somewhere underneath a restaurant -- and I bet we could all name at least three restaurants off-hand in Houston that struggle with this problem. But more often than not, the sewage smell you encounter in a restaurant is due to one very easily fixed problem: dirty mop water. Restaurant floors are unbelievably filthy things. Not being rude, it's just the truth: Diners are tracking all manner of things in all day long, food and drinks are spilled throughout the day, and often the same mops used for the restrooms are used for the dining room as well. And all too frequently, that mop water is only changed when it starts to resemble hobo stew made from scraped-up car exhaust and motor oil. Fresh water, a little bleach and a thorough cleaning will make all the difference in the world. Remember that our sense of smell is the sense with the longest and most tenacious memory. If a customer can only smell human shit while they're trying to eat, that's likely all they'll ever remember of your restaurant -- and your food.