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My (long...) rant on restaurant restrooms

This is really a sub-thread to the "if I owned a restaurant..."
Why can’t restaurants get the restroom right? This is really bugging me. I’ve been in some very fine restaurants that do so many things right... right up until someone has to use the restroom.
Although no restaurant restroom has risen to the level where I wanted to go there because of the restroom (“Hey guys, let’s go to Joe’s. The food is iffy but the bathroom is to die for!”), there have been times where it definitely added or subtracted from the overall experience. I will try to highlight what I consider some common mistakes as well as what makes for the best restroom experiences. I’m most familiar with the mens room and, except for those unisex restrooms (more on that later), the women’s room is a mystery for me and I want it to stay that way. I have a vision of a comfortable place where women go to “freshen up” and don’t do any of the things usually associated with a bathroom. I’ve been told that is not the case, that it's just like the mens room, but I’m going to keep believing it is different and there’s no telling me otherwise. With that being said, on to the restrooms.

First, the ideal restaurant restroom. Being a germaphobe, the ultimate restroom experience will be a “hands free” experience. In a perfect world, you would not have to touch anything when using the public restroom. This not only includes the obvious (toilet seat, handle and various knobs) but even the less obvious, like the door. To me, touching anything in the restroom should be avoided at all cost. To be honest, I’m not even too keen on touching myself, so touching something that someone else has touched after they might have touched themselves sort of freaks me out a bit. Unfortunately, to have the whole hands free experience you need a really big place. This is to accommodate the entrance to the restroom. To go without a door, one must have some sort of maze-like entrance that uses a lot of space. I acknowledge that only the very largest restaurants (or airports or shopping malls) have the necessary space for this setup. Once inside however, the technology is readily available where any profitable place should be able to go hands free. There are sensors that can flush toilets, dispense soap, turn on water and dry hands or dispense paper towels so you can not only dry your hands, but can then use the paper to open the door (if you must have a door) on your way out without having to touch it with your bare hand which otherwise just made moot every other hygienic precaution you have just taken.

I actually skipped an important step on the way to the restroom. Before you get into the restroom, you must first find it. Most places have their restrooms “in the back” somewhere. Easy enough you would think, but here’s a bit of a dilemma. The restroom should be easy to find yet be out of sight of diners. If you are sitting at a table anywhere in the restaurant, you should not be able to see inside the restroom. The ultimate sin? To somehow make eye contact with an actual toilet while dining. That can be a game changer. So, where should you place the restroom? Down an obvious hallway is good place to start. Some classic mistakes? I should not be able to chat with the dishwasher through an open door to the kitchen while waiting for the restroom. Food should be nowhere in sight and certainly not within reach of a bathroom even if it’s in a can. I know it’s kind of trendy to stock bales of semolina flour and cans of imported Roma tomatoes in places where customers can walk past and think to themselves “I like that they use top quality ingredients...” but please, not near a restroom. I’ve actually seen cans stacked in the restroom. My only hope is that it was meant as some kind of Warhol-like piece of art and never made it onto a plate.

OK, you’ve found the restroom, or at least think you’ve found the restroom when you come across the most egregious error in the world of restaurant bathrooms - signage. This seemingly most simple of things has done more to confuse me more than anything else associated with a restaurant restroom. Why do so many restaurant owners insist on making a trip to the restroom a game of pictionary? Is it really that difficult to stencil a “men” or a “women” on a door? Maybe include one of those international figures of a man or a woman. Listen folks, I’m just trying to use the bathroom. Now is not the time to get cute. I should not have to try to figure out if the wood carving is Sir Lancelot or maybe Lady Macbeth. Do I use the restroom with the picture of the mermaid or the one with the sperm whale? I’m not even sure what gender Medusa was. I know it's a French or Greek restaurant but I can assure you, if we're actually eating on U.S. soil, most of your customers do not speak French or Greek. Thankfully, Chinese and Thai restaurants recognize this and almost always go with English. Although women tell me that it wouldn't be the end of the world if I were to accidentally walk into "their" room, it would be for me. Bottom line, please put an easy to read sign on the door. Thank you.

OK, so the place isn’t big enough to go door-less but you managed to put the restrooms down the hall or behind some sort of screen. So far so good. Everything inside is up to par (hopefully hands free) except for... the trash bin. Really, how difficult should this be? First, could you please place the bin near the door so that I can open it with the paper towel (not touch the door) and then throw it in the trash without having to make an NBA 3-pointer? I rarely make that shot which segues into my next pet peeve: how often do you find the restroom trash overflowing with paper towels? I will now pause while you think of the two possible solutions for this problem... (I’ll be right back. Cue the Jeopardy theme music in your head...)

I’m back so let’s see if you came up with the same answers as me. First option: get a BIGGER trash can. Pretty simple, don’t you think? Second option: EMPTY the freak’n trash when it gets full! You can slice and dice and chop and saute and grill and poach but you are unable to get a grasp on the trash container in the restroom. Inexcusable.

Next on the list of common restaurant restroom miscues? The lock on the door. So we’re in a “cute” (e.g. small) bistro that has wonderful food but only has room for two small, one person, restrooms. I understand we might not be able to put in all the latest hands-free gizmo's that I really like to see but, come on guys, how about a decent lock on the door? Once again, I’m a little weird about this stuff as I’m the type of person who locks the bathroom door when I’m alone in my own house. One of the worst things I can possibly imagine happening to me is for the restroom door to be flung open in a crowded restaurant exposing me to dozens of diners who, I can assure you, have now lost their appetite for even the finest of fine food. Am I the only person who has nervously used a restroom while propping a foot or hand against the door? I’m sorry but the little button on the door knob doesn’t cut it. Neither does the small hook that I have to get into the even smaller eye that was screwed into the door post and might just be strong enough to keep a light breeze from swinging the door open. For me the ideal lock is something you would find on a medieval castle. You know the one I’m talking about - the kind that requires 30 or 40 strong guys using a 100 year-old pine tree battering ram to break open. Being that such a lock might be extreme, I’ll settle on a compromise - a good solid lock, or better yet, two. Maybe the lock can incorporate some of that new airplane or Grayhound bus technology which shows whether or not the restroom is “occupied”?

Lighting. Once again, this should be a pretty easy one. First, more than one light bulb please. This way, if one were to go out, I can still see. Next, how about enough wattage so I can really see what's going on in there. It's the bathroom for goodness sake. I’m really not looking for any kind of ambiance. Then there’s the light switch. Now, I’m a green kinda guy, really I am. I recycle and turn off lights when I leave a room but there is very little that creeps me out more than to have to feel along a wall in a dark public restroom for a light switch. Please have a light that stays on all the time - I know it might waste some energy but it's really so little compared to the peace of mind it gives me in return. If you want to be really cool, go with the motion sensor lighting ($14.95 at Home Depot). Anything. Just don't make me have to run my hand along the wall.

Finally, the unisex restroom. The ONLY time this is acceptable is when there is only one restroom in the building. If there are two, make one the men’s room and the other the women’s room. What’s the big deal you ask? This is the big deal: I walk into the unisex restroom and find the toilet seat has been left in the upright position. My first thought is “this is good, one less thing I have to touch” but then I realize that there might be a woman waiting outside the door. What is she going to think of me when she finds the seat left up? My women friends tell me not to sweat it as they never actually sit on the seat in any public restroom regardless of how clean the place is but I don’t believe them and have been programed for 50 years to “always put the seat down as there may be a lady using it after you”. What started out as a positive (me not having to touch the seat) has now, due to the unisex nature of the restroom, become “well, I have to lower the seat” and... you know what happens next, don’t you? The seat is, let’s say... not clean. As there might be a woman waiting outside the door, I am now in the position of having to CLEAN the seat because “what would she think of me if I didn’t” even though I had nothing to do with the lack of cleanliness and it would be very awkward to engage in such a conversation trying to explain this fact. I have now gone from enjoying a (sometimes very expensive) dinner with my wife to cleaning toilets because the restaurant has decided that “...we should be avant-garde and go with two unisex restrooms because I saw that in Europe last summer.” The real irony is that I don’t even clean the toilets at home as we hire someone to do that so the only place where I find myself cleaning a toilet these days is usually in an expensive restaurant. How weird is that?. I’m all about equality but please, please, please, separate restrooms.

There you have it. A few rules to follow to make the restroom experience as pleasant as possible. Does anyone else feel this way or am I nuts?

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  1. Wow- you have certainly given this a lot of thought!!!

    1 Reply
    1. re: macca

      Way too much. To think of all the stuff I could have gotten done around the house...

      1. At first I thought you were a bit nuts but after I considered your post, I realized you were spot on. My 2 biggest restroom issues: put a trash bin by the door so that I can throw out the towel I used to open the door and use solid locks. I particularly despise locks on single person restrooms where it's unclear if they are actually locked. I actually don't mind a unisex bathroom left with the seat up since its easy to put the seat down with my foot. Also, I prefer stalls that are completely enclosed. I've been in a few where the walls weren't quite tall enough to prevent me from seeing into the next one. Awkward!

        3 Replies
        1. re: Hobbert

          please do not use your wet, used hand towel to open the restroom door. 99.99% of us use our hands. be polite, use your hands too. We don't want to grab hold of a wet slimy knob or pull.

          1. re: KaimukiMan

            Yeah, I'm not going to start using my bare, clean hand to touch a filthy bathroom door handle. However, I use a clean paper towel or one that's barely damp. Most people may not use a paper towel but I hesitate to venture to guess how many of those also don't wash their hands. I suspect you and I probably aren't using the same restrooms, though, so it's not something that should worry you :)

            1. re: KaimukiMan

              I'm pretty considerate when using a paper towel to open door. I make sure I have enough dry parts on the towel so as to not leave any moisture on the knob. If I were to touch the knob and find it "wet" I'd freak out at the thought that it might not be water. If there are no towels I'll open the door with an article of clothing like my sleeve. It's like I committed a crime in there and I'm trying not to leave any fingerprints.

          2. As a guy, I am in the restroom maybe 1 1/2 to 2 minutes. I go in, do my business, wash up and leave. If the bathroom is nice and has all the amenities I need, great. If it does not, oh well, I came to the restaurant to eat. No big deal for me.

            22 Replies
            1. re: ttoommyy

              As a girl I'm the same way... In and out. As long as it's pretty clean and adequately stocked with TP, and has a sink with soap and a good way to dry my hands (ether paper towels or a hand blower that actually works well, I like those Dyson ones), I'm good to go. I'm not a germaphobe whatsoever though (although I have my limits... ie pee on the seat is a no no). I rarely get sick and I think my non-germaphobeness helps with that.

              1. re: juliejulez

                I'm the same way. In addition to the business at hand, I may touch up my lipstick but that's about it. I'm at the restaurant for the food, not the restroom experience.
                And after encountering some fascinating excuses for a restroom in SE Asia, I care even less about the amenities western restrooms offer.

                1. re: alliegator

                  It's the Asian bathroom experience that has made me LESS tolerant of poorly designed RR's.

                  Restaurants who tout their famous architects or ideal view/locale, or superior service are asking that their layout and amenities be judged harshly.

                  Chains should just know better by now.

                  1. re: alliegator

                    I've gotta say, I was oddly content with the toilet situation in Thailand (the 2 footrests with a hole in between) but I did bring my own toilet paper. The hose situation just wasn't happening.

                    1. re: Hobbert

                      Nylons-hose or garden-hose?

                      China life certainly redefined "padded bra" in our lexicon; that's where the emergency tissues lived.

                      My point is, places with squatties probably weren't selling the ambiance of the experience of eating at the restaurant-- more often than not, the RR was instead down the hall, around the corner, and out a back door and "owned" by someone else entirely.

                      1. re: Kris in Beijing

                        Haha...garden hose. Yeah, I agree with you- definitely zero ambiance.

                      2. re: Hobbert

                        Turkish toilets flip me out. I came across a few in Venice restaurants and held it rather than use the hole.

                        1. re: Hobbert

                          My Thai year was spent on Phuket. And while I won't go into to toilety details, occasional flooding rains and a low water table make for an unpleasant situation ;)
                          And the hose was a no-go for me as well. We referred to it simply as "ass-hose".

                          1. re: alliegator

                            First time in India, I had to come out of a restroom and ask Mr. Pine how to um, use the bathroom. Hole in the floor, 2 painted feet, but no running water for washing afterwards. And, yes, I knew about the use the right hand for food, left hand ("sinister" in medicalese) for other things.

                            1. re: pine time

                              Oh, Lordy. I'm going to India in October. Squat holes and I'm left handed. Awesome!

                              1. re: alliegator

                                Ha! Just go to more modern places than I've been to! Altho' seriously, consider taking some seat covers (that was my other funny experience: had my taken-from-here seat cover in hand, but: no seat to cover!), plus individually packaged hand wipes.

                                1. re: alliegator

                                  You'll be fine. Just bring toilet paper (Target sells travel rolls!) and watch where you...uh...aim the first couple times. After that, it's pretty easy. Skirts are helpful :)

                                  1. re: Hobbert

                                    I actually got quite used to squat holes, no biggie there. It's the eating! I want smaller, more authentic food experiences, I think I'll just politely explain that I'm left handed and the food looks so good that I want it to end up in my mouth :)

                                    1. re: alliegator

                                      I'd probably do that too. The few times my right hand has been injured and I've had to eat with my left, I thought I was going to lose my mind. It's one of the most frustrating things ever, especially if the meal is delicious and you can't focus on the flavors because you're trying to figure out how to keep from falling between plate and mouth. Argh!

                                      1. re: alliegator

                                        There's nothing more appealing than a squat hole after a nice big meal of really spicy Thai food.

                                        1. re: linguafood

                                          Some jobs are best saved for when you get home or to hotel, etc ;)

                                      1. re: latindancer

                                        I had my purse balanced on a window ledge (no hooks,natch), and a tube of lipstick fell out. Remained covered, mind you, but I still tossed the whole tube into the floor holes! Didn't want to even consider using it.

                                    1. re: alliegator

                                      Sort of a poor man's bidet? I've not heard of that before, please explain if you don't mind.

                                  2. re: alliegator

                                    Talk about excuses for a bathroom-
                                    having traveled a lot I would say it is quite an experience to use the open sky facilities in a Tibetan temple, the bathroom is always at the highest part of the temple, the view is of course breath taking. If you are lucky you may have used the luxury version which even has cement grips on the sides of the slit in the ground. And if you are a bit affected by the high altitude, you WILL use those slits....

                                    And - count your blessings that places like Burkina Faso ( West Africa) are usually so hot that you will not need a bathroom despite drinking gallons of bottled water and weak beer. Usually you will find a totally disgusting hole, 6 - 8 inch in diameter in the muddy ground outside in the back of any eatery...
                                    Btw we never got sick, you learn not to touch certain things, especially railings.

                                    And there was the outhouse in Guyana, not exactly making you a good reader...

                                    and - closer to home, a trip on a raft through the Grand Canyon - well, there is the sand and you carry out what you carried in. An occasional boat coming by might have gotten a casual wave....

                              2. "My women friends tell me not to sweat it"

                                I know you've put alot of thought into this...
                                Not being a germaphobe (I'm beginning to hate that word because it's being used, in many cases, to describe people who're just concerned about a little cleanliness and for those who aren't really concerned they now have a word to use to justify their lack of it).
                                Restrooms need to be clean and it's fascinating to me some of the 'fine dining' restaurants, in comparison, don't hold up cleanliness- wise to little beach shacks I've been to up and down the coast. There's one in particular I'm thinking of where one of the employees is, hourly, in there washing down the floors, the toilets, the sink and everything else he can get his cloth on to make sure it smells nice and is sparkling. It opens to the day light and it does sparkle.
                                I don't agree with your lady friends. While I don't sit on the seat I really don't care to come into a unisex restroom and see the seat up. Plus, I'm now wondering 'is this guy a good aim?', wondering what the floor and wall is like and I'm *not* worrying about germs when I think this. I blame my dislike on being raised with all boys and I now have an aversion to it because I wasted alot of time cleaning up after them before I used our one bathroom.
                                Personally, I like restaurant restrooms to have little cloth 4X4 washclothes to dry my hands with...thrown into a basket and the cleaning woman comes and empties it hourly and bleaches them. She's also in there shining the knobs, toilets, doors, mirrors and floors. I know it's over- the- top, not realistic everywhere, but I love it. Those new blast dryers are so loud they give me a jolt...especially when there's a 4 year old workin' it and thinking it's funny to see how long they can keep it going.
                                Anyway, with work like that from a cleaning person I never think twice...it's just psychological, I'm sure, but you'd think some restaurants could find it in their budget to make their patrons feel comfortable in a place that is pretty important.