The Germiest Spot In A Restaurant Is Likely Lurking Right Beneath Your Nose

You're probably touching it every time you go out to eat — and you really should be washing your hands afterward.
Tatiana Maksimova via Getty Images

Going out to eat should be a treat, but we never know how clean the restaurant’s ice dispenser is or if the person preparing our food has washed their hands recently ― and that can mean trouble.

Even though germs are everywhere and most of them are harmless, some of them can make us sick. So if there are simple strategies to stay safer when we’re dining out, why not use them?

That’s why we ― Raj Punjabi and Noah Michelson, hosts of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast ― asked microbiologist Jason Tetro, aka “The Germ Guy,” to brief us on what might be lurking at our tables and in the kitchens of even the fanciest restaurants.

Listen to the full episode by pressing play on the player:

During our chat, we learned what to avoid when we’re ordering from the bar, the dirty truth about the “five-second rule” and the number one germiest part of the restaurant.

A few years ago, “I was going around to different places in the city, and I was looking for the germiest items, and when I would go into restaurants, it was always the menus,” Tetro told us.

“The reason for that... was that the menus themselves were not so dirty, it was the cloth that they used to clean the menus,” he said.

Too often menus are cleaned using dirty cloths, which spread the germs from one item to the next, or the cleaning products don’t have time to be effective.

“You can use a detergent, you can use a disinfectant, and that’s great, right? But if you spray it into the cloth, well, you’ve just disinfected your cloth, and, yeah, you’ve maybe disinfected a small area of the cloth while the rest of it is still germy,” Tetro, the author of The Germ Files and The Germ Code, explained. “What you really need to be doing is you need to be taking that disinfectant and putting that onto the menu itself and then letting it sit.”

The sitting is incredibly important.

“We never talk about [this] in the media when we’re talking about hygiene, which is something called ‘contact time,’” he said. “When you spray a disinfectant onto a surface, it has to sit there, and it will say so on the label.”

The contact time to fully disinfect a surface can be anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, and if the product isn’t left to sit for the prescribed amount of time, it may not work correctly.

“We did this study, and it’s not with restaurants, but it was actually with gyms. ... You looked at the disinfectant and it said ‘leave on for 10 minutes,’” Tetro told us. “And then we went to the patrons and were like, ‘So, how long do you keep the disinfectant on for?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, we spray it and wipe it. Why?’ [And we told them] ‘Well, it says here in the label, 10 minutes.’ And they’re just like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Thankfully companies are now making faster-acting disinfectants, and many of them are more natural.

“We’ve got things that are made of hydrogen peroxide and citric acid, as opposed to some of the names that you can’t pronounce,” Tetro noted.

But the high volume of people handling menus combined with the user errors by the folks cleaning them means we could very likely come in contact with a big helping of germs whenever we’re choosing what to order.

“When you’re wiping down a menu, you’ve got to make sure that there’s that contact time, and, of course, [using] a disinfectant wipe for 30 seconds is your best option,” Tetro said. “Unless you’re doing that sort of continually after each and every time someone is touching it, the menus are going to continue being the germiest place in a restaurant.”

Because it’s hard to know exactly how our menu was cleaned (if it was at all), our best bet to stay as germ-free as possible is to wash our hands or use hand sanitiser after we use a menu or, if there’s a menu QR code on the table, use that instead.

For more tips on staying safe while dining out, listen to the full episode above or wherever you get your podcasts.

Make sure to subscribe to “Am I Doing It Wrong?” so you don’t miss a single episode, including our investigations of the ins and outs of tipping; how to apologise or vanquish your credit card debt.

For more from Jason Tetro, visit his website here.

Need some help with something you’ve been doing wrong? Email us at, and we might investigate the topic in an upcoming episode.