Don't Eat That! 16 Things You Should Never Order When Dining Out


Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

a variety of food dishes set out on a table

a variety of food dishes set out on a table

I never order fish on Monday. The fish markets in New York City are closed on the weekends, so the fish that's served on Monday was left over from Friday.

— Anthony Bourdain, "Kitchen Confidential"

In his first book, a scathing exposé that cracked open the door to all the dirty little secrets of the restaurant industry, Anthony Bourdain warned us to never order the fish on Monday. That makes perfect sense, but there are other potential risks out there that you might not have considered, or even knew could occur. Here’s a look at what to avoid when you dine out.

1. Bread (or Tortilla Chip) Basket

According to author Debra Ginsburg’s book Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress your best bet (if you don’t mind the empty calories) is the freshly-baked mini loaf of bread whisked to your table at an Italian restaurant. If the bread is already sliced or individual rolls, you might want to pass. Ms. Ginsburg (who was a former server) reveals that bread baskets can circulate from table to table.

2. Salsa

While we’re on the topic of tortilla chips, let’s think about their sidekick. OK, you’re going to start hating on me, I can tell. But honestly, how long has that salsa been sitting out? Anything that isn’t properly stored is a bacterial pool party.

buffet items

buffet items

3. Buffet Table

There are several potential problems here. First, how long has that food been sitting under a heat lamp? Was it kept hot enough to prevent bacterial growth, or just warm enough to make the food taste cozy and comforting? Did anyone in front of you sneeze on that pasta? Did little 5-year-old Jimmy (who eats his boogers) stick his fingers in the mashed potatoes while his parents weren’t looking? Did anyone sneeze or cough into their hands and then grab that spoon?

4. Salad Bar

Same story as above, except the food (should be) cold.

thick piece of cooked chicken

thick piece of cooked chicken

5. Chicken

Rare or medium-rare is great in many dishes, but chicken isn’t one of them. When kitchens are slammed (meaning that they are overwhelmed by the number of orders coming in) they can inadvertently send out a piece of chicken that looks lovely on the outside but is still clucking on the inside. Before you take a bite, use your knife and fork to cut into the thickest part of the meat. If it’s pink send it back. Just to be safe, I’d order something else.

bar drink with citrus garnish

bar drink with citrus garnish

6. Citrus Garnish on Your Drink

I am going to apologize in advance. I know that some of you who are reading this are bartenders, or bar backs, or know (and love) someone who is. Nevertheless, bartenders are often not held to the same exacting standards as kitchens. How old are those citrus slices? Have they been refrigerated? Handled with impeccably clean hands (or were those fingers in the cash till just a minute ago)?

7. Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice

This one kinda goes along with the citrus garnish topic above, but for a different reason. Unlike other beverages, “fresh-squeezed” juices are not pasteurized.

8. Condiments on the Table

Did you know that bottles of catsup are typically not tossed out when they approach empty? They are refilled and shuffled, and goodness only knows how long the contents at the bottom of that bottle have been lingering there. Yes, catsup is acidic and so does not spoil easily, but like everything, even catsup has an end life.

9. Syrup From a Pitcher

This is related to the problem with the condiment bottles. Goodness gracious knows how old that stuff is (and what might have happened to it while it was sitting on the table). Ask for the “to go” packets of syrup instead of the communal pot.

10. Drinks With Milk

A long, long time ago, when I was expecting our second child, we ate at an Italian restaurant chain (I won’t divulge the name but it rhymes with Forgive Pardon). I ordered a glass of milk as my beverage of choice. Ohmygoodness, it was awful! So horribly “off” I’m surprised that it poured rather than plopping into my glass in chunks. We alerted our waiter to the problem, and he promptly replaced it with another glass—which was equally bad. Milk doesn’t get used that much in the bar, so don’t. Just don’t.

Ask what yesterday's soup du jour was before today's special. It may be the case that it's the soup du month.

— Gordon Ramsay, as told to "Town & Country" magazine

11. Hollandaise Sauce

Mr. Bourdain comes to the rescue again, admitting that eggs Benedict is one of the least favorite items on the menu (preparing that sauce is a royal pain in the patootie). Think twice before ordering. It’s basically raw eggs and butter hovering at “warm” but not hot enough to kill anything.

12. Mussels

They are magnificently tasty, but also incredibly fragile. Unless you personally know the chef, skip the mussels. One bad mussel can ruin an entire week, trust me.

bar snack of salted peanuts

bar snack of salted peanuts

13. Peanuts, Popcorn, and Other Bar Snacks

This one doesn’t take too much thought. Popcorn or peanuts in a bowl?

14. Soup if You’re a Vegetarian

Maybe there are no actual pieces of beef, pork, chicken, or seafood floating around in the bowl, but what about the stock?

15. Sprouts

In a past article, I covered the topic of growing your own sprouts. It’s fun, easy, and economical, but you must use safe food-handling practices. The climate that encourages the rapid growth of sprouts from raw seed to food garnish is also the climate that provides the breeding ground for Salmonella, Listeria, and E.coli.

16. Well-Done Steak

You’re probably wondering, “What’s the harm”? Isn’t this safer than a piece of meat that is cooked rare and still has blood running across the plate? Well, truth be told, cooking a piece of beef to “well done” is a great mask for a steak that’s seen better days.

After reading this article...

© 2019 Linda Lum


manatita44 from london on May 05, 2019:

That last part is a very good tip. It's a bit like being taught the politeness of putting your hands to your face when sneezing, but then these same hands will touch something else. Ah, Linda … sunday! Over and out! Lol.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on May 05, 2019:

Manatita, I have never sent a meal back for that very reason. Also, be polite to the person who delivers the plate from the cook to your table. Most of these tips are common sense. Avoid what could be old. I have also heard it said that the germiest thing you will touch is the menu so wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you return the menu to the waitperson.

manatita44 from london on May 05, 2019:

Scary stuff! Yes, my Dear. I'm afraid you're are right and some places are pretty bad. That's why there are pretty good inspectors. Sometimes we have to eat out, though. What can one do? However, never get angry with a chef, as the next side to the story is that they can do bad stuff to the food consciously, if you upset them. So if you do and the food is coming from the back kitchen, go somewhere else.

Pretty wise and informative stuff and not new at all. Excellent info!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 27, 2019:

Dianna, isn't it just baffling how clueless people can be? What are they THINKING?! I'm glad that you appreciated the article.

Dianna Mendez on April 27, 2019:

I avoid buffets in general. I have observed too many hands inside dishes, sneezing and putting food back with bare hands to enjoy the experience. I'll be extra careful after reading your tips.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 23, 2019:

Lori, the more people I hear from, the more I'm convinced that eating at home is the way to go. We seldom eat out because (1) I love to cook, and (2) I'm extremely cheap. (If you don't believe me look at my new item in my weekly Q&A series called "Don't Throw That Away!" and my articles on "Loving Leftovers.")

Thanks for commenting and supporting what I had long suspected.

Lori Colbo from United States on April 23, 2019:

After working as a camp cook and working in a deli at a local grocery store, I have quit using salad bars and buffets. At the deli, we were responsible for setting up the salad bars. I can't tell you how many times we saw children and adults put their hands into the salad bar items. One homeless lady with a mental illness regularly stood at the bar picking stuff out of it and eating it. Of course, we felt bad she was homeless, but it was a health issue. The management spoke with her a number of times and finally banned her from the store.

I would hesitate for people to eat the deli meat at a busy deli such as in a grocery store. We had to take temps regularly to see that the meat was at the right temperature, however, when we got slammed really hard for a long period of time, we would barely rewrap meat after slicing it for a customer only to have someone order it again. This would happen repeatedly for popular meat. The meat would not have time to cool or remain at the proper temperature. Once in a while, a customer would say they bought some meat and it "didn't agree with me."

Kitchens are dirty places.

Those condiment containers, spot on. I never thought about the bread though but I can see where that would be the case. You've given a lot of information here and glad you did so. Having worked in food service I am often uncomfortable eating in certain restaurants and delis.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 23, 2019:

Tony was (more than) a little rough around the edges, but wow, did he ever pull back the curtain on the dining industry, and glad that he did.

Mary Wickison from Brazil on April 23, 2019:

Having worked in a restaurant, I give things a quick once over and try and choose carefully.

I never thought about the fruit in bar drinks but you're right!

Bourdain's book was an eye opener, thanks for recommending it.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 23, 2019:

Eric, it is possible that you pick up a little bug (or two) when you dine out. However, you eat such a healthy diet, it could simply be that restaurant-quality food (which is often over-salted and fatty) just doesn't agree with your tummy.

Refrigerating costs money, but so does being shut down by the health inspector.

True story, years ago my husband worked for the county health department. He had a friend there who was assigned to do the health inspections for the fast-food restaurants in the county. She had a special pair of shoes reserved for when she inspected a well-known fast food chain (which I will NOT name) because the floors were notoriously so gross.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 23, 2019:

Pinakigoswami, so nice to receive a comment from you. If this is your first visit, I hope that you will return and read some of my other articles. Almost all of them (over 400) are food-related. I have a weekly Question and Answer series that is published every Monday.

Blessings on your day.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 23, 2019:

This one got me thinking more. I think often I "eat out" and do not feel good for a day. I was thinking about Lobster??

Refrigerating cost money. I will think more on this.

Pinaki Goswami on April 23, 2019:

Nice article with valuable information. Thanks and regards.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Poppy, I hope that readers don't see this and opt to never eat out again. My intent was merely to forewarn and enable. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on April 22, 2019:

This is fascinating! Albeit a little paranoid. After all, humans have been sharing germs for a millennia. That being said, after reading this I may opt for always cooking my own meals from now on.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Wow, when you consider the consequences, it really inflates the actual "cost" of that dollar menu, doesn't it?

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 22, 2019:

Flourish, my son and I contracted Hepatitis A in 1995. We narrowed it down to Mickey D's because he didn't eat what I'd cook, but would eat chicken nuggets.What you say below makes perfect sense. Normally, Hep A is contracted through contaminated cold food (by people who are infected and don't wipe/wash). Now I know how we were contaminated by the unclean methods of the restaurant as a whole.

I'll never order from there again!

Thank you!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Pamela, I hope that you don't have nightmares over this. Don't order the fish or seafood, skip the chips and salsa. The breadbasket is (almost) empty calories, and as for to-go condiments.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Flourish, that's horrifying but at the same time absolutely believable.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Eric, I have no problem with aged meat. But there's a right and a wrong way to do it.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 22, 2019:

Ok, You have convinced me. I may never eat our again! I hate to think of things not handled properly or something that is full of germs. I appreciate your tips and if I am ever able to eat out again I will be super careful.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 22, 2019:

I’ve always suspected some of these things. My daughter worked at the local McDonald’s in high school and they had incidents of someone in the kitchen taking a bite of the burger then sending it on its way to the customer — several times. There were other times when the employee got confused which soda was which (Dr Pepper or Coke) so he took a quick sip before he marked the lid, out of customer view of course. She has so many stories.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 22, 2019:

Nothing to do with the subject here. Are we having a blast with food?! As good as being healthy and well. Or even a hug.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Shauna, I don't think I've ever bought a pie (whole or half) and can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of cakes I've purchased. But, your point is a good one.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 22, 2019:

I'm going to bend your subject matter a little here by something I learned about half cakes and pies sold in grocery stores. I don't remember where I learned it, but those are actually baked goods that didn't sell. So, they're cut in half and sold at a bargain price. No telling how old they are or how they were stored. Never buy a half cake or pie from the grocery store!

Of course, you and I both bake so we wouldn't dream of buying a pre-made cake or pie anyway, right?

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 22, 2019:

So interesting. After being a cook and part owner of a restaurant not one of these things surprised me. I am in some disagreement on the meat though. Most meat is not aged enough. For instance I only buy steaks that are getting purple. Pink or read meat is full of die and not aged enough.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Thank you.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 22, 2019:

Linda, I read all your articles all the way through. They're well-written, laced with humor, and always provide a lesson.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Sha, you really read the whole thing! My mom was one of those who would rarely (pun intended) order a steak, but when she did she insisted that it had to be well, well done! My dad and I would just roll our eyes and then wink at each other when she complained that it was dry and tough. That poor steer was killed twice.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 22, 2019:

Sis, this is such an important article. Great idea! Your comment about bread makes perfect sense. Why throw something away when you can (sneakily) recycle to the next unsuspecting diner? Ugh!

Love your advice on buffets and salad bars. (Why do kids eat their buggers, anyway? Ga -ross!)

I don't understand people who waste a perfectly good (and expensive) cut of beef by ordering it well-done. What a culinary sacrilege!

Your tip regarding hollandaise sauce is a good one as well. I never thought about it before, but you're absolutely right. Eggs Benedict is not a frequent flyer on your typical diner menu. Guess I won't be ordering my favorite egg dish any more!

Eggsellent article, Sis!

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Bill, I will always love you. We rarely eat out--I'm fussy and I hate to toot my own horn but I rarely eat something at a restaurant that is better than what I think I can create at home. And it's expensive! The only advantage to dining out is that someone else does the dishes.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on April 22, 2019:

What's left to eat? You eliminated most of my favorite foods. LOL Good thing we never go out to eat or I'd starve following your advice. :) I don't know why you put up with me, but I'm mighty glad you do.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on April 22, 2019:

Ann, you are absolutely right. Perhaps I should simply say "fresh seafood. Period." A bout of food poisoning is someone one never forgets. Thanks for stopping by.

Ann Carr from SW England on April 22, 2019:

Not that I've eaten them often, but I would add oysters to this list. Unless you've seen them before they're served, and given them a little push to see if they move, don't even go there!

I ate some one Christmas Eve and got the 'bad' plate - then spent all Christmas Day and Boxing Day being ill, and I mean really ill!

Great hub as always!


Related Articles