How to select a great restaurant on a trip

Sharing an exquisite meal on a trip can be a powerful, even profound experience. Dining can be one of the most memorable and pleasurable aspects of traveling.

It can also be a nightmare.

You only need one bad meal that makes you violently sick to put a damper on an otherwise great trip. But as they say, “This too shall pass.” And it does…eventually. Rare (depending on where you visited) is the person who picks up a bug that accompanies you home like a bad souvenir.

More likely on the downside of eating, is that you’ll settle for something mediocre and miss out on the opportunity for culinary fireworks.

So how do you improve the odds that your meals on a trip will enhance rather than detract from your travel experience?

Here are some tips I’ve found useful. See what you think and let me know what you do to increase the likelihood of having a great meal on your trips. Let’s start with my favorite technique:

Tip #1: Go where the locals are.

The only downside of a highly popular place is that it is highly popular. As Yogi Berra noted about one such restaurant, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” The feeding throngs can reach a point where it isn’t worth the wait or the hassle. But in general, seeing a restaurant filled with people who look like they live in the neighborhood is my all-time best indicator that you’re likely to have a good meal there.

Tip #2: Ask the right locals.

Inquire of locals who don’t have a vested interest in your going to a particular restaurant. My favorite way to do this is to ask a local, “Where would you take a date?” or “Where would you go on your anniversary?” or “Where would you take an out-of-town friend?” I get much better responses than just asking, “What’s good around here?”

Tip #3: Use a guidebook.

Yes, I know many of you hate relying on guidebooks or ratings sites like Zagat, Yelp, Trip Advisor or others. Where’s the thrill of discovery, you may ask, if you’re going to someplace someone else has already recommended to every other tourist reading that same guidebook or Web site? To me, the discovery is in the dining experience itself. Put another way, I’ve “discovered” many bad restaurants on my own but have rarely had even a so-so meal at a highly recommended restaurant.

Tip #4: Find more than one thing on the menu that appeals to you.

If only one thing looks good, you’re out of luck if they’re out of that dish. Moreover, you’re more likely to appreciate the overall type of food at a restaurant where many menu items look appealing. But don’t rely on the menu alone. If you can before you are seated or even afterwards, wander around the restaurant. See what others are eating that looks appealing. Ask the waiter what that is or, if you’re outgoing and language isn’t an issue, ask the diner if they like it. Do it in an inviting manner and you’ll possibly make a new friend. Worse case, you’ll increase your likelihood of ordering something tasty.

Tip #5: Go some place that just looks cool.

As we’ll see next time when I give you a list of tips on how to avoid a bad restaurant, this is at the top of that list as well. In other words, you can’t always judge the food by the atmosphere. But if the place appeals to you visually and all the other signs look good, go for it. Even if the food is lousy, you’ll at least enjoy the settings. The opposite, of course, is also true: some of the most “hole-in-the-wall-like” places with the least visual appeal serve the best food. So what you see isn’t always what you get. Hence the previous four tips!

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