The Fancier the Restaurant, the Harder It Is to Find the Bathroom

The public toilet is no place for cuteness.

A neon "restrooms" sign at a restaurant


It may surprise you to learn how many problems I have with restaurant bathroom signs. Then again, it may not surprise you at all. I have no way of knowing whether you’re one of those even-tempered types who take even shocking news in their stride, merely coolly raising an eyebrow and saying “Is that so?” upon being informed you have been utterly ruined, or the kind that falls to pieces after sleeping through their morning alarm. Let us be charitable and assume you are more like the former than otherwise. 

Nevertheless, the problem remains that there is no central governing body that the public might expect to standardize, streamline, and simplify bathroom signs in restaurants, and every restaurant goer is left to fend for themselves. 

The costlier the restaurant, the fewer and more obscure the bathroom signs become. Fast food joints and diners are ashamed of nothing; they’d print directions to the bathroom on the menus and the bottom rim of their coffee cups if they thought it would help. Their signs go up in block letters or neon, or sometimes with a large, tasteless illustration of a cat crossing its paws across the front of its body to signify desperation. It might be vulgar, but at least it’s clear. 

Danny Lavery

Which one is the penny-farthing bicycle supposed to be, and which one the monocle? 

— Danny Lavery

The middle-of-the-road places, along with the more aspirational tourist traps, might get a little more conceptual with it. The men’s room might be marked with a cursive silhouette of a top hat or something, and the women’s room with a bouquet of flowers. The bathroom might be slightly out of the way, but you’d better believe there’ll be an old-fashioned phone booth with a big RESTROOMS THIS WAY sign on it to guide you. Sometimes they get carried away with the abstraction, and end up in the realm of the inscrutable. Which one is the penny-farthing bicycle supposed to be, and which one the monocle? 

As I rule, I do not think bathroom signs are the right place to express creativity, humor, or worst of all, whimsy. They should be clear, effective, utilitarian, and never contain anything that resembles a flourish. There is no bathroom related joke that is so innovative, so perceptive, so insightful, that it improves upon subsequent viewings. This includes the little silhouette of aliens and unicorns declaring, “Whatever gender, just wash your hands.” Drawings of people in “desperate” poses on the bathroom doors, “beer recycling station” placards over urinals, editorial commentary over the “employees must wash hands” signs — they cannot improve upon the experience of either finding or using the bathroom, and whatever humor anyone might find in them can only pall. The public toilet is no place for cuteness. 

The worst offenders are the really nice restaurants, which provide no signs at all, and like to hide their bathrooms in out-of-the-way corridors concealed by thick velvet drapes, or downstairs in the basement — but the stairs to the basement are located directly behind the host stand, so nobody could possibly be expected to find them. You rise from your table, discreetly murmuring to your companions that you’ll only be a minute, and boldly strike out in no particular direction, since one guess is as good as any other. Perhaps you toddle off in the direction of the EXIT sign, which is the only sign the restaurant is willing to put on its walls, otherwise they’ll get fined by the fire department. Well, of course the bathroom isn’t there, and so you have to turn around again once you reach your first dead end. 

Danny Lavery

“Oh, there he is,” four dozen faces seem to say all at once, “That’s the fellow who can’t find the bathroom.”

— Danny Lavery

This is the worst part, that first about-face, because now for some reason everyone else on the dining floor looks up at you in a perfectly choreographed moment of unanimous scorn. You have become temporarily famous, and everyone else in the restaurant knows exactly two things about you: that you need to use the bathroom, and that you are lost, just like a toddler. 

“Oh, there he is,” four dozen faces seem to say all at once, “That’s the fellow who can’t find the bathroom.” But do they lift a finger to help you? They do not. They return to their Kingfish à la Richelieu, their Terrapène a la Maryland, their Crab a la Ravigote, et cetera, little minding that it might be them out there next time, and thanking God that you’re the poor devil wandering the halls, while they remain safe and secure, rich with crab, in their cozy little banquettes and No. 14 bentwood chairs. How I hate them. 

Your next attempt lands you somewhere in a strange little side station where they keep the water pitchers and baskets for bread. Your third attempt takes you into the kitchen, where at last some server takes pity on you and says, “Are you looking for the bathroom?” 

And how dare they pity you. There’s nothing wrong with looking for the bathroom in a restaurant. It’s a perfectly ordinary, reasonable thing to do. They’re the ones who have put you on the back foot by hiding the damn thing at the end of a labyrinth. Why bother to ask? Of course you’re looking for the bathroom! Why else would you have abandoned your comfortable seat in the middle of a nice meal to patrol the perimeter of the building? There’s no reason to ask a question you already know the answer to. This one’s just as bad as the rest. But you wander off after them meekly enough, because you have always depended on the kindness of strangers. And they never take you in the direction you would have guessed, because it’s always in the last place you look.

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