Some phrases that make my heart hurt:
- “We got there and we were tired, so we just ate at the hotel”
- “I didn’t know what anything was, so thank god there was a [PICK ONE: TGIMcFunsters/Magic Panda/Burger Sovereign] nearby”
- “We wanted to eat where we could see the [INSERT MAJOR TOURIST ATTRACTION HERE].”
The average tourist decision, anywhere in the world, on where to eat goes like this:
Joe Schmoe spends hundreds of dollars on flights and hotels to get to EXCITINGVILLE! He spent the whole flight reading the guidebook entry for FAMOUS PLAZA. When he got there, he looked around for a little while, took some terrible selfie photos Instagram, and then decided it’s lunchtime. He didn’t look at where to have lunch, and god forbid he get too far from FAMOUS PLAZA (is there even more to EXCITINGVILLE than that?), so he ends up at Hairy Sam’s Plaza-side Authentic Shack of EXCITINGVILLE Specials or the fancy looking place that Slimey Scouterson just slipped him a menu to: The food all sounds like what you’re supposed to get in EXCITINGVILLE, but there are no prices on it. (Hint: They’re as embarrassed to charge you those prices as you’ll be to pay them).
I’m constantly asked for where to eat by people who are smart enough not to pull a Joe Schmoe on their trip, where to find the best food while traveling. While I’m always happy to give advice, the truth is, I haven’t been everywhere (I so, so wish I had been, though). So I can’t always give an answer. What I can give is the way that I do my own research on where to go in a new-to-me city, and how I pick where to eat.
- Reach out to my network: I start with the easy targets. A quick tweet, or a question on Facebook will usually turn up a few good leads (especially with domestic travel). Even if I don’t get a direct recommendation, I can often get a lead to somebody who does know what he or she is talking about. Sometimes, I even get a local to show me around. Facebook has twice hooked me up with old college pals that I didn’t know were living in a place I was travelling to, and in Beijing it was a lifesaver, as Nick did a heck of a lot of translating for us, in addition to an excellent survey of the areas regional Chinese food.
- Search food boards: Once I’ve exhausted the people I have a connection to, I have to start trusting people I don’t know, but who care enough about what they eat to spend time chatting on food boards. Here I advise careful judgment. About 70% of the time I get good suggestions from Chowhound, Mouthfuls, and Egullet. The other 30% of chatter is that of raving lunatics. Stark. Raving. Mad. People who suggest preposterous restaurants, who poo-poo those who don’t agree with them, who say things like “the Cheesecake Factory really isn’t that bad, and it’s right near your hotel.” It’s like Yelp minus the hipsters, plus extra snobiness.
- Record the results: It might seem like the obvious suggestion, but you don’t want to be standing on the street corner in Quito, looking up at the sky, going “Now, what was the name of that ceviche stall The GastroGnome suggested?” while some local hooligan snatches wallet. Nor do you want to hike all the way across New York City just to find your Liberian restaurant is closed on Tuesdays and now you’re hungry, in South Jamaica, and the cops are wondering what a young white girl is doing here alone (hint: they think you’re buying drugs). So I use a two prong approach here: a spreadsheet that has name, address, hours, website/phone number, and any comments about best dishes/what to order, and a map. The map (I use Google Maps to create) is also useful for marking where your hotel is and any sights you want to see, so you can pick a path that hits all the good restaurants on your way.
- Find bloggers: Unless you’ve hitch-hiked your way onto a sailboat headed for Nauru or you and your buddy Dennis Rodman are making haste for North Korea, someone has probably been there before. It’s nearly as likely, in this day of Internet ubiquity, that someone has written about their experience. And even if your search for connections turned up emptier than Nauru’s tourism bureau, maybe somebody else was more successful. Especially helpful if it’s a blogger whose tastes you already know or trust (I have a few bloggers who seem to run in similar circles and to similar places as I do, who I always turn to first, like Gastronomy Blog, Mmm-Yoso). Even if you’ve never seen the blog before, it is infinitely more helpful than other resources because (we hope) the fact that their writing a blog indicates: a) They care about what they eat, b)They may be able to articulate what is good or bad about various places, and c) If you’re not sure if you trust them, you can look in their archives to see what they think about places you have more experience with.
- Read about local foods: Sure, you know that when you’re headed to Mexico you want tortas because you like Mexican sandwiches. But if you’re heading to Puebla, you should know to look for cemitas (sesame-bunned towers of meat topped with string cheese), and in Queretaro you’ll want to look for pambazos, dipped and fried sandwiches of potatoes and ham. And where to eat them? I subscribe to the Bourdain method here: locate two cliché places that serve it, and post on a local food board asking which is better. Locals will quickly jump in to supply you with the much better, non-cliché version.
So now, you tell me: What are your best tips and tricks for finding great food while you travel?