How to select a great restaurant on a trip

by Steve Brock on December 7, 2012

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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Getting the most out of a guidebook

by Steve Brock on February 21, 2011

We never would have found these ancient - and secluded - friary ruins in Ireland had we not read about them in a single guidebook: none of the half dozen other guidebooks we had noted them. That meant we had the entire place to ourselves...and the cows and sheep.

What’s so meaningful about a guidebook? Nothing really. It’s what you do with it that will determine if the outcome is meaningful or not.

In today’s interconnected world, you wonder if the guidebook itself is becoming an anachronism, a throwback to a time when people read actual newspapers and a social network usually involved a potluck. So I’m less concerned with the medium in which the information is presented – books, printouts of PDFs, downloadable e-books, podcasts, phone apps or live access to Web sites while traveling. The question to me is this: Is the content of value to the traveler?

I know of some travelers who say no.

Those who oppose guidebooks say that such aids:

  • Prevent or at least hinder personal discovery
  • Lead you to the same places everyone else goes and reinforce stereotypes
  • Err on the side of the safe, tried and true international hotels and restaurants rather than local ones, or, when they do come across an indigenous find, they ruin it by telling everyone. That hidden gem then becomes as private as a Royal Wedding.

 I agree with those points to some degree. But to me, it all comes down to how you use a guidebook. Here are some thoughts on how to get the most from written guides (we’ll save the subject of live tour guides for another time):

  • Realize that all discovery is personal. Just because a million people have been to the same place before doesn’t make it any less meaningful for you the first time you go there.
  • Use the guidebook as a starting point. Use it to identify places and events that sound interesting to you and to avoid those that don’t. The primary value to me of a guidebook is that it saves me time. Think of it as a filter, not the final word on what to see.
  • Don’t settle for just one perspective. As I noted last time, I always go to the library and check out as many guidebooks as I can. I’ll usually end up buying one or two to take or photocopy (or more recently, download onto a Kindle), but I only purchase the one that most aligns with my style, needs for this particular trip and travel sensibilities. Look over several and find what works for you.
  • Focus on both the similarities and differences. Most guidebooks will overlap 80-90% in what they cover, at least in terms of the sights to see. That 90% will include the popular, touristy places. But read carefully for the other 10%. In the details listed in only one book, you often encounter some of the most interesting finds, places you’d never discover on your own. 
  • Cast your guidebook aside once you get your bearings. Guidebooks serve well to provide you with background, an initial orientation and some possible places to consider you might never find on your own. But once you get there, you’ll experience more meaningful encounters through talking with locals and other travelers and making your own discoveries. 

 All of the above points matter, but here’s the main reason I use guidebooks: They prime me for openness.

That may seem counter-intuitive because if anything, you may think that guidebooks close you by pointing you toward the same old sights and foisting someone else’s perceptions on you. But to me, by having a greater background and familiarity with the popular sights and even other people’s opinions courtesy of the guidebook, I’m actually free to look around more on my own without worrying about what I might miss.

What about you? How do you use guidebooks? Or do you? Do you just show up and wing it? Has your use changed over time? Do you have a favorite? Share your thoughts on what works for you.

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