The Steakhouse Red Flag Chefs Look Out For

The dimly-lit ambiance, cushy seats, and indulgent entrées at a steakhouse should be a recipe for a luxurious evening. But if you skip out on going to one of the best steakhouse chains and decide to visit a new establishment, it can be hard to tell if the meal will live up to expectations, or if you'll pay a high price for a semi-decent steak with ho-hum sides and appetizers. To discern hidden gems from the duds, Food Republic asked Sean Thompson, executive chef of Porter House in New York City, about a red flag he'd be wary about when trying a new steakhouse.

Rather than focusing on the atmosphere or prices, Thompson cautions diners to examine the menu. "One red flag [...] is when the menu seems too large," the chef says. "Not only is it overbearing, but a steakhouse can easily lose its identity when there's far too many options to choose from." A big menu might mean the restaurant produces a lot of mediocre food without much thought, rather than a smaller number of great dishes that have been carefully chosen and prepared according to the chef's vision. 

Also, if certain dishes on a big menu aren't popular enough to justify stocking fresh ingredients to make it, the kitchen might serve unlucky diners frozen or old food. A crowded list of offerings might not always foreshadow a bad meal, but as Thompson points out, it can also make the ordering process feel overwhelming.

What's at stake when restaurants offer too many options

Although flipping through a novel-length menu can be fun at first, too many offerings might give the kitchen an impossible job. Even at spots with limited menus, the staff work hard to deliver perfectly-assembled plates, at the right temperature, at the right time. Sean Thompson speculates that oversized menus may lead to the kitchen taking shortcuts. "[A large menu] would lead me to believe that they are using the microwave far more than the average person would think," he says.

Although chain restaurants using microwaves to heat up or even cook food isn't uncommon, you'd be surprised to learn that higher-class establishments do it, too. That's why this "big menu" red flag is an especially handy trick to know if a restaurant is bad. A steakhouse wouldn't be able to microwave your steak and pass it off, but they might zap pre-made sauces, side dishes, and desserts to help them juggle all the dishes on an overwhelming menu.

This not only comes at the expense of quality, but it could also pose a safety risk. Restauranteurs might build their menus around ingredients that can be reheated throughout the night, creating a risk of meal prep mistakes, like perishable foods sitting out for too long. Plus, a bogged-down kitchen means slow service, which is not ideal on a special night. Don't blindly prioritize variety with steakhouses — a small menu can make up for its size in terms of quality.