Michael Cecchi-Azzolina's Top Signs You've Walked Into A Good Restaurant

For an industry professional like Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, certain signs indicate that a restaurant is up to speed. The New York City maître d' revealed his tips for scouting out the best restaurants, and we were more than willing to listen and learn. "It's hard to teach because it's an energetic thing, and it's because when you're in the business for this long, you walk in the door and see things that no one else can see," he admitted before revealing a few cues to look out for when deciding to sit down and order. Thanks to Cecchi-Azzolina, the next time you pass a restaurant wondering if you should stop for a meal, you'll have plenty to notice before you even begin browsing a menu.

When entering an eatery, regardless of its ratings or fancy reputation, Cecchi-Azzolina notices the attentiveness of the staff. He watches to see if there is an ambiance of conviviality and whether team members seem happy to be there. Indicators can include a friendly nod from the bartender or a welcoming smile from the person standing at the door. If a restaurant's team doesn't seem eager to usher you into the space, you may not want to sit down, he warns. After considering the staff, he evaluates the atmosphere of the place — everything from lighting to decorations.

Evaluating space and ambiance

"If we're going for dinner and it looks like a bright cafeteria, I know that someone did not take the time to invest in how their restaurant looks and the lighting of it," he told our Tasting Table team. Lighting can be a difficult aesthetic to master, Cecchi-Azzolina admits, but when you're planning on sitting at a table for several hours to enjoy a meal, it is an important detail.

After lighting, he too notices the decorations of the establishment, preferring restaurants that have made an effort to create something special. Whether it is a family-run diner or an upscale tapas bar, the maître d' pays careful attention to what is hanging on walls and which spaces feel comfortably like home.

Along with evaluating the lighting and the ambiance, Cecchi-Azzolina notices the cleanliness of the restaurant, then looks at the faces of the diners who are already seated for a meal. A fair number of guests in the dining space is a promising indicator, along with plenty of content expressions. "Do they look like they're having a great time, or are they just staring off into space?" he encourages restaurant reviewers to ask. Once you've taken the attitude of the team, the ambiance of the place, and the impression of other diners into consideration, then you can make your final decision on whether or not this is a restaurant you'd like to order food and drinks.