Ask the Critics: Do Restaurants Have to Offer Restrooms?


Sharon S. asks: I was in a small restaurant the other day and when I asked where the restroom was, I was told there wasn’t one. I thought any place that served food had to offer toilets. Am I mistaken? What’s the rule?

Dear Sharon: I had actually been under the same impression, but the law is a little bit more complicated than that. It doesn’t pertain to whether the restaurant serves food or not, but it’s based on the eatery’s overall seating capacity.

According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, toilet facilities should be installed according to local plumbing ordinances. All food-service establishments with a seating capacity of 20 or more, except those in operation on or before December 5, 1977, must provide appropriately identified and maintained toilet facilities for their patrons. So I’m guessing that the restaurant you were in had capacity of under 20, making it exempt from the law.

And don’t you find it annoying when you see that there’s an employee restroom in the back but when you ask to use it you’re denied? Well, there might be a reason for that. Employee toilet facilities may be used by patrons only if they do not pass through a food preparation or utensil washing area to access them and there are separate facilities for each sex. Toilet rooms also must be completely enclosed and have tight-fitting, self-closing, solid doors. So you might be denied not because your barista is a dick, but because of the law.

Moral of the story: If you’re the type to pee after every meal, look for establishments that can seat a lot of people. Or just don’t drink that giant mug of coffee.