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  • Colin Barclay

"What are you going to order?"

Every restaurant has its strong points and its weak points. Some restaurants use fresh vegetables and some do not. Some chefs resent making the fancy-schmancy items on the menu and some can't wait for that order. College-Town Diner is staffed mainly by college kids so Sunday morning service might be a little..."different."

This is just the way it goes and its not changing anytime soon. If you want to get the most out of your time and money then its helpful to know how to read the signs. Here are a couple clues.

1. Is it a bar first and a restaurant second? This should be pretty clear and if it is indeed a bar first, then stick with simple menu items. It will be a total crap-shoot if you order something that requires advanced techniques and a lot of fresh produce. Some bar-bars do put out amazing food, if you are ever in Baltimore check out a place called Bad Decisions. But in this case there are glaring indicators that the food is liable to be great. There are over 800 kinds of liquor stocked and everyday fresh fruit of some kind is picked up from the farmers market and used in the drinks. There are board games all over the place, $2 cans of beer and the menu reads: "Kitchen is open until 1:30, or until the chef is too drunk to cook." Its a random world and If you find yourself in a gem like this, all bets are off and you could end up with some of the best food you've ever had.

2. Do all the menu items sound super-complex? Watch out for this one. The pomegranate-almond gravy may grab your attention but it takes a very talented chef to pull something like that off. You never know, you might have just discovered a rising star but if you are really hungry and don't have money to gamble with, then try something more reliable the first time around and see how well they do with it. If the burger and fries are incredible then they may just be able to handle the ultra-complex.

3. This one takes a little more attention to spot and you have to use that thinkin' brain, but its well worth developing a radar for this kind of thing. The question is - do all the employees look like they hate life? Does your waitress have that "save me" look in her eye? Even the best restaurants have terrible days and you might of just walked into the middle of a crisis. Generally speaking, restaurants are completely insane. Cooks, bartenders and waiters deal with an obscene amount of stress. Sometimes its long hours, no days off, tantrum-throwing executive chefs and rude customers. There are times when you just do not want to be a part of it. Order an appetizer and feel it out, or be willing to go somewhere else.

Just about everyplace has at least one dish that they make very well. Sometimes its easy to identify what that will be and sometimes its not. When all else fails, ask yourself - "which menu item(s) could be their mascot?"

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