Have you ever traveled someplace famous for its great food only to sit down to a meal that tasted like a reheated frozen dinner?
I was in Italy – the home of pizza and pasta – and after years of hearing about how the dough was fresher, the sauce was richer, and cheese was tangier, I was so ready to taste the amazing-ness for myself.
So on my first day in Rome, after a morning of sightseeing, I wandered into a nearby restaurant, plonked down at the closest table, and ordered a pasta dish. After about ten minutes, it arrived. Fast service, yes… but the good news stopped there. Because before me were little pockets of ravioli in a sort of dried up layer of sauce and paste-like cheese practically glued to a scratched-up white plate. And unfortunately, it didn’t taste much better than it looked. In fact, it tasted rather like one of those microwave meals you buy in the frozen section of the supermarket.
Okay, so I’d had a bad experience. Fine. I figured the next meal would be better. But… it wasn’t. And neither was the meal after that.
Then one day, I ordered the same type of pasta dish I’d ordered that very first meal in Rome. When it came to my table, it was identical to the gluey, bland dish I’d received before – except for one thing. This time, it didn’t come out to me on a scratched-up white plate. Instead, it arrived in a disposable white cardboard container. Oh my God. This didn’t just taste like a microwave frozen dinner. It was a microwave frozen dinner.
I couldn’t believe this had happened to me. Not once, not twice, but over and over, I’d been served crappy, reheated, frozen food that had been removed from the plastic container and re-plated to look marginally less crappy.
It was strange, because I thought I’d done everything right. I’d gone to restaurants recommended in the guidebook. I ate in places that seemed popular – and I mean, they were packed to the gills with people. I ordered the “local” food rather than some sort of exotic fare. And yet, I didn’t get great food. Not even close.
If you’ve had this experience, you have my sympathies. If you haven’t, well, let me spare you the pain. I want to share some of my tips for finding great food when traveling, and I want to start by recounting some really interesting advice from Tyler Cowen.
Tyler Cowen, if you don’t know, is an economist and a foodie at heart, and he describes some techniques for hunting down great food in an article in The Atlantic called Six Rules for Dining. In it, he uses some freakonomics-style logic to zero in on the finest fare.
Some of his advice seemingly goes against common sense, such as Tip #1: Order what sounds least appetizing. Crazy, right? Well this is Cowen’s explanation:
At a fancy restaurant, the menu is well thought-out. The kitchen’s time and attention are scarce. An item won’t be on the menu unless there is a good reason for its presence. If it sounds bad, it probably tastes especially good. Many popular-sounding items, on the other hand, can be slightly below the menu’s average quality… And consider that a few items may be on the menu specifically because they are generally in demand, not because the chef cooks them with special brilliance.
Other bizarre but surprisingly logical tips include avoiding restaurants full of beautiful women (they attract so many male diners that the restaurant can let the quality of the food slide) and to eat in strip malls (the rent is cheaper so the restaurant can afford to be more daring and creative with its menu).
But as travelers, I think the one tip we should all take away from Cowen’s article is this: ask for advice about where to eat – and importantly – ask the right people for advice.
Most of us tend to ask our hotel reception desk or concierge for advice on where to dine, but in my experience, these turn out to be the worst people to ask for a recommendation. I’ve almost always been advised to eat at restaurants that are known to be popular among foreigners. This sounds good in theory, but what it generally means is a place with English-speaking staff serving bland dishes adapted to appeal to foreign palates, in a room with nice views and correspondingly higher prices. Not terrible, but not exactly a drool-worthy experience either.
So who exactly should we ask for recommendations about where to find great food? Here’s Cowen’s advice:
Ask people between 35 and 55 years old for a tip, because they are especially likely to be eating out frequently at good places, and to have a lot of experience with good food. Look for someone who is prosperous or middle class but not necessarily very rich. Ask people who are geographically mobile in their professions and thus accustomed to eating out and collecting information about food. Ask a firefighter for a good, cheap local place; drive to the fire station if you have to. Ask a cabdriver. I have found that regional textbook salespeople—who are traveling and dining out all the time—are a good source of food information.
Makes sense right?
However, if you don’t necessarily want to stalk firefighters or traveling salespeople, or the local language proves a barrier to asking around, for that matter – don’t panic. I’m going to share a couple of other ways to find great food that I frequently use.
9 More Ways To Find Great Food
1. Eat street food
You’ve probably heard all sorts of horror stories about people getting sick from eating street food, but there’s no reason this has to be the case. In fact, the only time I’ve ever gotten food poisoning in all my travels was when I ate at a seemingly nice restaurant, so there are clearly no guarantees when it comes to food safety. Besides, at least at street stalls, you can see the kitchen – how often is this the case at a restaurant? Street food stalls often serves tasty local fare that may not even be available in most restaurants, so it’s definitely worth trying out. Just make sure to pick a stand that is busy, and preferably busy with local customers – the high turnover ensures the food is always fresh and hot, meaning you’re less likely to fall ill.
2. Eat at the right time of day
Try and get a sense for what time the locals eat lunch and see where the business people go for their meal. Many restaurants will cook up one or two dishes in bulk to offer up to time-pressed patrons at lunch time so you’ll likely find fast service and good value for money.
3. Analyze the diners
Stick your head in the restaurant and see who’s eating there. If a Korean joint is brimming with Koreans, chances are high the restaurant serves great food. If the restaurant is full of foreigners – or empty, for that matter – leave. But remember, just because a restaurant is crowded doesn’t mean that it’s good – it might simply be full because it’s in a highly-touristed area. That’s why paying attention to the kind of patrons is so important.
4. Eat off the tourist trail
Along the same lines as the point above, remember that restaurants in touristy areas are likely to cater to tourists. If you want to eat great food, head outside the tourist center and eat where the locals do. At the very least, veer off the main thoroughfares and head down the side streets.
5. Pick restaurants with menus in the local language
If you see a restaurant offering menus in every single language known to man, it’s clearly a venue that caters to helpless foreigners. The restaurant knows that even if the food is bad, it doesn’t matter because as a traveler, you’re not likely to turn into repeat business anyway – and there’s always another traveler around the corner who’ll be suckered into dining there. So stick to restaurants with menus in the local language – there’ll usually be a single English menu floating around somewhere, or someone will be able to translate the items for you. Worst-case scenario: look around at what others are eating and point to what looks good. I’ve even flapped my arms to mime “chicken” so I could get the type of meat I wanted. Don’t laugh.
6. Choose restaurants with short menus
It doesn’t always hold true, but often food joints that offer only a couple of choices do those dishes really well. Local diners keep coming back because they know that’s where they’ll find the best souvlaki or pizza or whatever. If there are 100 things on the menu, your chances of picking the best dish are slim (assuming there is one). You can ask the server for a recommendation, but there’s no guarantee they won’t just suggest the fish because they bought too much and need to offload it.
7. Keep your eyes peeled
If you’re walking around town and you see a line stretching out off a building and around the block, go see what it is! You might just discover an amazing hole-in-the-wall dumpling shop that only locals know about – it’s happened to me.
8. Read user-generated reviews
Sites like Yelp, Foodspotting, Urbanspoon, Foursquare and the like can help you find great food that’s been vetted by thousands of other diners. Not only are they helpful for discovering the best restaurants, they’re also perfect for figuring out exactly which dishes to order and which to avoid. I much prefer these kinds of online recommendations to the ones in guidebooks, since a guidebook usually only offers the opinion of one writer versus the thousands of people sharing their opinions online.
9. Make use of social networks
Ask for advice about where to eat on facebook and twitter. You might find locals responding to your tweets for help with some great tips.
What do you think? Have you had any really terrible meals? Do you have any other suggestions for finding great food? Share them in the comments!