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.