10 ways to select a perfect restaurant while traveling …

Posted on
Nov 23, 2009

Touristy spots, as annoying and overcrowded as they may be, are touristy for a reason. They’re part of what makes a city unique and interesting, and more often than not, they’re worth seeing. Imagine going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower, or going to Lake Como and not trying to sneak into George Clooney‘s villa, restraining order be damned. It would just be … weird.

That being said, touristy restaurants are another matter. They are popular solely due to geographic location. Since there’s rarely ever any repeat business (just a lot of hungry travelers, looking for a bite now) there’s no reason to provide food or service that would have you dying to come back. They’re going to make money, regardless of quality, as long as no one sues. Cuisine needs to be “just above litigiously bad.”

Fortunately, with the help of the intarwebs and a little bit of moxie, there are ways to find a great meal, wherever you are:

  1. Ask around. Keep in mind that certain folks might have a vested interest in getting you to eat at a particular place. Your concierge, for example, might hand you a card with his name on it to present to your waiter or offer to make a reservation for you – often because he’s getting a cut (this is much more common in Europe than in the U.S., so domestically, I would probably ask a concierge). Another option is to inquire at a non-competing establishment (for example, ask the owner of a bookstore where to get a good meal, or ask a cab driver or street vendor).
    We found steamy-Thai-deliciousness by asking the valets at our hotel where they ate lunch.

    We found steamy-Thai-deliciousness in Portland by asking the valets at our hotel where they ate lunch.

  2. Do your homework. Sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoonfeature user reviews of restaurants around the U.S. and the globe, so you can make sure you aren’t eating in the culinary equivalent of Dante’s Inferno. Travel guide books tend to suck in this area, though, since they aren’t timely enough to keep up.
    We listened to the guidebook. As such, nearly everything we ended up eating was friend (which is not at all as awesome as it sounds).

    We listened to the guidebook. As such, nearly everything we ended up eating was fried (which is not at all as awesome as it sounds).

  3. Sneak a peek. Try and get a glimpse of the patrons in a restaurant. Do they look happy? Disappointed? Poisoned? If you’re feeling bold, you could even go up to some diners and ask them what they think of the place. If they tell you to fuck off, well … you’re probably in Jersey.
  4. Go off the beaten path. Food in touristy locations is not only generally worse, it’s generally pricier. Often, cheaper cuisine is only a few blocks away. Like the time Pinguina and I paid 6 euros a piece for ice cream on the Ponte Vecchio. 2 blocks away it was half that. Take a walk and save some money.
  5. Go ethnic. I know, I know, this sounds a bit risky. But odds are a restaurant that specializes in a particular type of cuisine is going to be more reliable and consistent than one that tries to make everyone happy. Kababs and hummous are the same the world over. These aren’t people who are trying to make a quick buck off hungry tourists by making crappy regional cuisine or cashing in on a fad – instead, they’re cooking recipes they know.
    In Spain, tourists seek out paella, so its hard to find a good spot. This isnt the case in Jersey, where we found a fantastic articulation of this dish.

    In Spain, tourists seek out paella, so it’s hard to find a good spot. This isn’t the case in Jersey, where we found a fantastic articulation of this dish.

  6. Follow the locals. When my husband and I spotted a group of Venetians headed to their “usual” restaurant, we turned tail and followed them. Of course, between free aperitifs, a poorly translated menu, and the fact that I can barely read English, much less Italian, when I’m sloshed, we accidentally ended up ordering baby horse. Still, it wasn’t bad baby horse. The eel was another story. But did I mention the apertifs were free? So were the digestives. Turned out to be one of the best meals I’ve ever drank.
  7. Become a repeat offender. Yes, yes – adventure is good, travel is about trying new things, blah, blah, blah. But sometimes, even while on vacation, you long for a bit of familiarity. If there was an amazing restaurant you stumbled upon, and you can’t stop thinking about it, GO BACK. Odds are you won’t find a place you like more, and you’ll get even better service the second time around.
    Rand and I head to the Guida Del Duomo Restaurant whenever were in Munich. Even though its only were there only a few times a year, the staff has come to remember us.

    Rand and I head to the Guida Del Duomo Restaurant whenever we’re in Munich. Even though it’s only we’re there only a few times a year, the staff has come to remember us, and service is always stellar.

  8. Bug your friends and family. Before you go, ask around. More often than not, someone will have toured the exact area you’re headed to, and will have some snacktacular advice on where to grab a bite.
    My father (shown here, almost smiling) always takes us to Renzos - his favorite Italian restaurant in Germany. Its consistently fantastic, and only locals seem to know about it.

    My father (shown here, almost smiling) always takes us to Renzo’s – his favorite Italian restaurant in Germany. It’s consistently fantastic, and we’d have driven right by it without him.

  9. Ask your server. Usually every restaurant, good or bad, has at least one edible menu item. Ask your server about their favorite dish, or have them help you choose between a few entrees. The more you enjoy the meal, the better the tip, so they’ve got their own interests at stake, too.
  10. Use common sense. If it looks iffy, it probably is. Follow your gut (heh heh heh – pun). Hole-in-the-walls can be awesome (sketchy looking decor is fine; sketchy looking food isn’t). Personally, I avoid sushi in landlocked states and countries, try to select regional specialties and dishes from restaurants that aren’t in super-touristy parts of town, and run from anything that the server can’t easily describe in 5 words or less.

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