What to look out for before you open a menu in a restaurant
Inspectors shut down more eateries in 2013 than ever before. So what are the important signs that things aren't right when you walk through the door? Suzanne Campbell reports
Cockroaches, congealed blood and mice all contributed to a record number of food businesses forced to close by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) in 2013.
Worryingly, these murky incidents were reported by environmental health officers in all types of eateries: pubs, hotels, bakeries and takeaways.
The reality in the food world is that things can go wrong, and no matter how many inspections, some businesses just don't operate safe practice around food. We've also seen an increase in new food businesses in Ireland. Market stalls and pop-ups are relatively new in the food environment here but must have safe food no matter how small.
At a recent market in Newmarket Square in Dublin I saw a young food server at a stall serve a customer while storing a rolled cigarette in the corner of her mouth.
However hip your food business is, this is unacceptable. As is long hair, jewellery on hands (great storage for germs) or an over-casual attitude to customers' needs.
But small shouldn't mean risky -- we've also seen some favourite restaurants with a 'good name' suffer closure notices and enforcement notices this year. So how can you tell if something is going on in a restaurant that might make the food unsafe?
Don't generally visit a restaurant in its first few weeks of opening even if everybody is raving about it. This is when restaurants have 'teething problems'. Recently an owner complained to me about a bad review of her restaurant in a national paper because she had just opened and staff weren't trained properly. Why open then?
In cities and towns, avoid eating on main streets and squares. Rents are higher here and most of your meal price goes on paying it, not on quality of ingredients or care. Tourists often aren't respected as most never return.
Good restaurants can sink when they change hands or management. I ate in a restaurant I used to like in south Dublin recently and later found it had changed owner. I should have known -- it was near empty, with a different, cheaper menu and staff were sitting on the chrome counters of the open kitchen at the end of the evening. I won't be going back.
How does the restaurant look? Is the entrance clean and what about the concrete outside? What do you smell when you open the door? If it's detergent or that icky 'food-on-carpet' smell, walk back out again.
There is no excuse for visible grime on bathrooms, loo roll on the floor or worse. Attention to detail and staffing numbers are key. Do they have enough staff to operate the restaurant safely?
The table: is the surface clean of crumbs and grease stains? Do the menus appear to have dried food on them or dried food on utensils or salt and pepper shakers?
Short menus are better than long ones with regard to food safety. Keeping a large stock of meats, fish and veg risks food going unused or going off.
Remember, the 'special' is in most cases a way to use up food close to its use-by date. If you're somewhere low-brow or unknown, avoid the 'special'.
If you're in an ethnic food restaurant such as a Chinese or Indian, but nobody of that ethnicity is eating there, avoid it.
Food is not fit to eat if it has a foreign object in it like a hair or insect. If the dish is meant to be hot, it should be piping hot. Badly cooked chicken is more of a health risk than red meat. If chicken is pink in the centre, or if you suspect for an instant it is not properly cooked don't eat a mouthful. If it smells 'off' send it back and leave.
Are they neat and tidy with clean aprons or shirts? If they look dispirited there's probably dispiriting things going on in the kitchen. Even in a small café staff should care about the food and food service.
It's a big no-no for staff to pick things up off the ground and then move on to serve something without washing their hands. Staff who scratch their face, arms or 'other' is revolting, as is sniffling, and the big, uncovered, never-ending yawn.
In cafés and lunchtime bars, staff should either wear gloves at the deli counter or visibly wash hands between servings. Gloves should not then be worn to operate the till as I often see happening. This indicates bad training and bad food prep. Are they wearing the same gloves to open and close bins?
Don't accept poor hygiene practices. Leave a restaurant at any stage if you feel the food is unsafe to eat. Remember, if you suspect something going on that may affect diners' safety you should make a complaint to the FSAI or call its advice line on 1890 333677.