Why Cocktail Sauce Could Be A Red Flag At A Seafood Restaurant

While it's relatively easy to tell when meats like chicken and steak are old or have gone bad, it's a little trickier for seafood. Because seafood will always smell and taste fishy in some way, there are other indicators you have to rely on. For example, as Angry Crab Shack shares, the meat should never be slimy or mushy, and if there are irregularities in the color, it's best to avoid it. At a restaurant, however, these red flags are even harder to spot since you don't get to personally inspect the seafood before it's served. Thrillist explains therefore that you have to rely on additional clues, such as the restaurant serving all the seafood fried, not disclosing specifically where the seafood was caught, or referring to the cost of each menu item as the "market price," a term used to make diners believe the seafood comes fresh from a market.

But one of the most telling red flags may not be evident in the seafood itself, but rather a condiment served with it.

Restaurants sometimes use cocktail sauce to disguise low quality seafood

Legendary chef James Beard once referred to cocktail sauce as "the worst thing that ever happened to the oyster" (via the Chicago Tribune), but this bold statement had nothing to do with his personal preference. For the same reason that upscale steakhouses don't serve their steaks with A1, a good seafood restaurant won't slather their seafood in cocktail sauce. Though it's a popular condiment for shrimp and oysters, oyster expert Kevin Joseph told Food & Wine that high quality, clean shellfish doesn't actually need it.

In terms of flavor, the combination of Worcestershire sauce and ketchup does little to make good seafood taste better, professional chef Richard Krause explained to the New York Times. If it's added to a dish, therefore, its main function is to disguise seafood that's either old, overcooked, unseasoned, or has an iodine aftertaste. Restaurateur Joseph Baum added that if guests like their shrimp with cocktail sauce, it's usually because they enjoy ketchup more than shrimp. 

Because it uses ketchup as a main ingredient, cocktail sauce can be an overpowering flavor, and that means if the seafood is actually worth tasting, a restaurant won't cover it up.