Sounds simple, doesn’t it? All you want on your travels is a decent restaurant, where the food’s good, authentic and inexpensive – the kind of place the locals would eat.
However, it’s not always so straightforward, and I should know – I’ve spent many years seeking out the best places to eat for my readers, from Europe to Asia and back again.
Here’s how to better your chances of finding that amazing restaurant experience that you’re going to talk about for the rest of your life.
Rule 1. Read a book
You could pick a place out of your guidebook – nothing wrong with that. Most guidebook writers do a decent job. But remember that the guidebook reviews are just a small snapshot of all the restaurants in that place – there’s no way the writer had time to check out every restaurant in town on their brief visit. Maybe they missed the best place of all, especially if it was – cliché alert! – a hidden gem?
Also, ever notice how the same restaurants appear in all the different guidebooks? That’s because (whisper it gently) they copy each other – if a great-sounding restaurant is in one guide, you can bet the authors of a competing guide will want to check it out too.
That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad restaurant, just because it’s in several guidebooks. But look around you – are most of your fellow diners tourists and travellers? Really? How did that happen?
Rule 2. Get online
So a guidebook recommendation isn’t always enough. If I’m doing some pre-trip planning, I cross-check places online – on TripAdvisor, or on local foodie websites and blogs. That usually gives you a good idea if the guidebook places are genuinely any good – and, by the way, starts to throw up some more interesting possibilities that the guidebooks haven’t even mentioned.
True, TripAdvisor isn’t always completely reliable. If the number one choice in a town is a takeaway burger bar and the Michelin-starred restaurant is nowhere to be seen, you begin to doubt the reviews. But take a wider look. There’s something about the wisdom of crowds, and if the overall ratings for a particular place are high, and the overall complaints low, then probably what you’ve got is a decent restaurant.
Rule 3. Ask a local
Even with a shortlist of great-sounding restaurants, I always ask a local when I’m there, just to sniff out some new possibilities. Hotel and hostel staff, tourist office people, the police, delivery guys, even just strangers on the street – I talk to them all in the quest for a fantastic local restaurant.
Here’s the trick though. Because you look like a tourist – you do, really – they might tell you about the sort of place they think you should go to, rather than the kind of place we’re talking about. They may not imagine for one minute that you want to sit in their backstreet local, in a brightly-lit room with mismatching furniture, with no menu and no one who speaks English. But you do because the food will be fantastic!
So be sure to ask, “Where do you eat with your family?” or “Where can I eat real Mexican/Portuguese/Thai food?” or even “Where can I go where there aren’t any tourists where the food is great?”. That’s the message you want to get across.
And if the thought of stopping strangers in the street freaks you out, let Twitter work for you – ask the same questions, chuck in some hashtags, see what suggestions you get.
Rule 4. Read the menu
Once outside the restaurant, there’s a couple more things I always do, starting with a good look at the menu. If it’s in four languages, or has helpful pictures of the microwave paellas they are about to serve you, I say move on. No one local is going to eat here.
I’m also a bit suspicious if it’s a very, very, very long menu. Do they really cook all those dishes from fresh, to order? (Obviously, I except virtually every decent Chinese restaurant on the planet from this rule).
I like a place where there’s a handwritten menu posted in the window, or even scrawled on a chalkboard. It’s not always a guarantee, but it does mean they probably cater more to locals who aren’t bothered about printed menus as long as the food is good.
Can’t understand the menu? Or even, no menu at all? Don’t let it worry you – no one ever minds you pointing at dishes on other peoples’ tables. Give a thumbs-up if you have to. The waiter will get the idea.
I’ve been taken out back into the kitchen before now, and shown what they have, with not a word of English being exchanged. Hence, I suspect, the dish of sauteed pangolin liver in a stag-beetle jus. Just kidding.
Rule 5. Check the clientele
While you’re lurking outside, have a look through the window. If it’s full of people poring over Rough Guides and Lonely Planets, you’ve probably come up against Rule 1 again. Full of likely looking locals eating delicious food? Bingo.
Can’t see inside? Don’t be afraid to walk in and have a quick look. You’ll soon know if it’s the kind of place you want to spend your evening. Remember, we’re not talking about a romantic night out or gourmet dining here. We just want a decent meal at a reasonable price – nothing fancy, no airs and graces.
Incidentally, I’ve never fully subscribed to the ‘if it’s empty, the restaurant can’t be any good’ hypothesis. Perhaps you’re just too early? Turn up to eat dinner in Spain at 9.30pm, for example, and they’re just setting the tables. You will eat – often in splendid isolation – a great meal and then put your coat on to leave at 11pm, just as everyone local arrives for dinner.
Rule 6. Ignore rules 1–5 and chance it!
Some of the best meals I’ve ever had – from Lisbon to Laos – have been in the most unexpected places. Even if I’ve found what I think is the perfect place for dinner, I always – and I realise this may just be me – walk around the corner first, just to check there’s nowhere better.
I’ve eaten in restaurants where they had to wake the chef up; restaurants where, apart from the wedding party of 100, I was the only other customer (they didn’t mind – I was asked to sing a song from my country and then they picked up the tab); restaurants that were basically someone’s lounge; restaurants in castles, monasteries, prisons and ships; restaurants in jungles, on beaches, up mountains and in gorges; restaurants where I had to choose my meal from fish tanks; and restaurants where no one – and I mean no one – had ever seen or spoken to a foreigner before.
Every single one was memorable. None was in a guidebook. Some I found using the rules above. Others happened because I walked around the corner.
Good luck. And Bon Apetit!
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Header image, Bangkok Chinatown by Allie Caulfield, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Menu by lucianvenutian, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Beef Noodle by Leon Brocard, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The Cliff Bay romantic dinner by PortoBay hotels & restaurants, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Kuala Lumpur by jo.sau, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Milan policeman by Thomas Quine, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Some tourism by Davidlohr Bueso, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0