Never Eat Complimentary Bread At Restaurants?

Posted on 09 Apr 2017 05:09

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I have long seen dire warnings against ordering or eating certain restaurant foods. These warnings come in two main varieties. One, the food is gross and dirty in some way and, two: it is a rip-off and of low quality. One of the most often heard examples is complimentary bread. Chefs, restaurant employees, and others say we should never eat it.

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First, before we even get into whether or not it is true that you should not eat the complimentary bread at restaurants, let's consider potential sources for this type of information. Here are some sources you might find:

  • random restaurant employees
  • industry statistics or standards
  • food-borne illness reports

You might notice something. These sources are not equal! Only the second two can be relied upon as being (potentially) unbiased and based on statistical information.

Yet, by far, the most frequent sources used for articles about restaurant foods to avoid are restaurant workers. So, what's the problem? They work in a restaurant. Who would know better about what foods to avoid? Well, that is the problem. They work in "a" restaurant. Even if they had been employed by two or three different restaurants, what they say about what foods are "bad" is anecdotal. In other words, it is based on the personal experience of one person. What is true in ONE restaurant may not be true of all restaurants. As well, not all restaurants are the same. Does the person work in a "greasy spoon?" Is it corporate-owned casual dining? Is it fine dining?

Complimentary restaurant bread basket
Complimentary restaurant bread basket

Why do They Say You Should Avoid the Free Bread?

So, are there often food-poisoning outbreaks linked to free bread at restaurants? No. While it may have happened, it is not common.

Why should you avoid that nice warm complimentary bread that arrives in a cloth covered basket? Because, according to some restaurant staff, a lot of the bread that does not get eaten ends up being re-warmed and placed in another person's basket. Undoubtedly, this is true in some restaurants. But the idea that it is a standard restaurant practice, to the extent that we should be warned against accepting complimentary bread, is a bit of a stretch. I mentioned industry statistics. I have never come across a statistic related to the widespread re-use of complimentary bread.

There are many foods we are warned to NEVER eat at restaurants. And oft-mentioned food is complimentary bread. Should you completely avoid the free bread at restaurants? Or is this just a baked up myth?
There are many foods we are warned to NEVER eat at restaurants. And oft-mentioned food is complimentary bread. Should you completely avoid the free bread at restaurants? Or is this just a baked up myth?

A restaurant that re-warms already served bread and places it in another guest's basket is a very bad restaurant. Even if the bread is not eaten, it may have been touched. In fact, it probably was touched. If one of the other guests had any sort of contamination on their hands, such as the sort that comes from not properly washing after using the bathroom, then you could get sick. For example, this would be a potential source of norovirus, the most frequent kind of food poisoning. Is it common for food-poisoning outbreaks to be traced to complimentary bread at restaurants? While it may have happened, it is not common by any means.

You have to ask yourself, if you think it is possible that a restaurant you visit would reuse bread, then why do you even go there? You must use your judgment and the general standards of the restaurant, including the cleanliness, should tell you a lot.

There is, however, a very likely source of the claim that restaurants reuse bread and I suspect that many of the people saying they know of this behavior are simply repeating what they read from this very popular source: Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain, a great source of anecdotal information, claims that the reuse of bread is an industry-wide practice. His source for this claim is a news 'expose' he saw on television. He then simply claims that it is widespread in the industry without offering any sort of proof, except his own word.

Regardless, he says he would eat the bread and you should too. If I really thought bread being reused was a widespread industry practice, I would not recommend you eat it. Because people are nasty. Sure, there are germs everywhere, but when you end up throwing your guts up after eating at a restaurant, you probably are going to be thinking in more specific terms. Bourdain seems to think the problem is "some guy may have sneezed in the direction of the bread." Apparently, he's unaware of people's proclivity to use their grubby paws, which is a much greater danger. If, however, Bourdain had bothered to do any actual research, he would have learned that in most restaurant-related food-poisoning outbreaks, restaurant workers are the source. So, it is more likely that a restaurant worker might handle the bread and contaminate it. However, this could happen whether or not the bread is reused!

The next time a restaurant employee (likely on social media) tells you that you shouldn't eat bread because it may have been touched by other customers, remind them that as much as 70% of outbreaks are caused by restaurant workers.

For those not caused by staff, the rest tend to be associated with food-preparation (cross-contamination, improper washing of raw foods, etc.) or by certain common foods. Bread is not one of them:

According to surveillance by the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne, and Environmental Diseases of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, between 1998–2008, among the 67,752 illnesses the most commonly implicated foods were poultry (17%), leafy vegetables (13%), beef (12%), and fruits/nuts (11%). Unless there has been a huge epidemic of poisonous bread since 2008, I don't think the bread basket is of particular concern.

Does it Happen?

Yes, of course it happens. Some restaurants re-use or at least "recycle" bread. For example, they might save uneaten bread to use in other dishes that use bread as an ingredient such as a stuffing or bread pudding. But, if a restaurant does this, you can be sure they do other unsavory things! In other words, bread is just the tip of the iceberg.

That bread uneaten complimentary bread never gets reused is not the point of this article. The point is the oftstated claim that reusing such bread is a widespread industry practice in restaurants far and wide and that you can count on your free bread being the same bread that another customer didn't eat. Any chef whose been in the business for a couple of decades will know doubt tell you some horror stories about a restaurant or two that rewarmed bread. The same chefs will likely point out that rewarming bread was the least of the shady business going on. They will not tell you that it is "industry practice," because not all chefs are trying to be bestselling authors.

Should You Eat Complimentary Bread?

So, should you avoid bread in restaurants? Probably not. The idea that restaurants routinely risk poisoning their guests is prevalent. Here is what you should know. Local health departments are very good at isolating the origin of food poisoning outbreaks. If you own a restaurant and you take risks with people's food, you are risking being shut down, even if the health inspector doesn't notice any problem.

I agree with Bourdain, though, on one thing, as I've stated here, I will not eat in a restaurant with a filthy bathroom. If the bathroom is bad, you can bet the kitchen is unbelievable. He points out that bathrooms are much easier to clean than kitchens, and you can see the bathrooms. This should tell you everything you need to know. The reason I mention this comes back to what I wrote above: You have to use your judgment.

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