How to Find the Best Food While Traveling

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].”
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Brett, contemplating the table full of excellent dim sum we found not far from our hotel in Beijing.

 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.

The Kung Pao Pastrami from Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco is a travel food-find favorite.

The Kung Pao Pastrami from Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco is a travel food-find favorite.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for the mention. I’ve started using a bunch of apps when I travel, Tripit lists events that are planned, like maybe a blowout dinner. If we’re planning to be in a certain area I’ll list the restaurant possibilities along with notes. EverNote stores copies of emails, notes….like instructions on how to get to a certain restaurant. I’m still searching for an app that will store my google maps for my trip. My Maps is pretty good, but doesn’t do the walking directions, etc, perhaps you’ve found the solution? Then there’s my handy moleskin in which I will take notes, and is my back-up along with printed maps, though I usually only have to see photos of a dish to remember.
    Thoguh this sounds really structured, I leave about half the time open just to kind of wander around, you never know what you’ll find that’s delicious. Since we enjoy eating what the regular folks eat, this is often the most interesting. If I see police officers, taxi drivers, or a good number of working class folks eating somewhere, I’ll make note of it.

    Thanks again for the mention. I love your blog. Seattle is one of my favorite cities in the US.

    • Thanks Kirk! I’ll have to check out Tripit. I don’t have an iPhone (I’m Android), so the google maps layers feature works pretty well offline, as long as you cache it from wifi. Doesn’t get you directions, but you can see where things are. When I had the iPhone, my maps was about the best thing I found.

  2. As a person who travels a lot – I have to say that sometimes there is comfort in not having to make many decisions nor navigate an unfamiliar landscape. I am not embarrassed to admit to my McDonald’s visits in Paris.

  3. I often use Yelp while traveling within the United States. It’s an adequate choice for identifying good restaurants, but it really shines as a service for identifying bad restaurants. Sometimes you just need to know what to avoid before you can start considering the places that are good.

    Obviously, Yelp suffers from a lot of me-too-ism and exaggerated disappointment-type reviews (e.g. this place wasn’t as awesome as I was hoping it would be: one star), but you know that going in. It’s not like the food boards are perfect, either.

    Internationally, I rely heavily on bloggers. Diana Kuan (Appetite for China) was huge for finding restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Moreover, some places have their own super-specialized Yelp-type services, like localnoodles in Beijing. It was thanks to them that I was able to find Ichikura in Beijing, arguably the best bar I’ve been to in the world.

  4. I’ve been on the road for nearly 3 months now and as a professional chef, I’m never one to go to nearest, convenient, familiar, or popular place. Some techniques I’ve discovered in my travels which consistently lead me to the best eats: Ask your trendy/hipster barista. I had an excellent cup of joe in Kansas City at Oddly Correct when I got into town early and struck up conversation with the co-owner/barista who recommended an awesome dinner spot. Bartenders in really great bars have an in to the industry and make great recommendations as well. I’ve had a surprising number of GREAT picks from New York Times 36 Hours guide book, including DRINK in Boston. The 2012 edition has proven very handy and reasonably current. Otherwise, avoid guide books – especially the ones for DC. Terrible. Search for “chef’s picks ______” and “up and coming chefs in_____.” Chef’s tend to eat well when we go out and lean towards smaller, more intimate settings with consistent, solid food and a great bar. Up and coming or rising star chefs are the ones who are in the thick of pushing to the top and haven’t hit the point of complacency yet. Hit local (not the big dogs) newspapers top 10 lists. The Portland Guardian brought me to Biwa where I had the best 5 bites of perfect hibachi sashimi ever. A local online publication in Denver brought me to Uncle where i had a shrimp steamed bun that wowed me both in taste in the way they prepared and presented the shrimp plus spicy street corn and an uber clean and refreshing marinated octopus salad. I can comfortably say I don’t rely on Eater unless I’m following an article on a chef or bartender and that person recommends another place.

  5. This article really speaks to me. I travel a lot, and I regularly organize dive trips for friends. Most of the time the dive trips include an eating trip during or after, so I always do my research beforehand. I’m not the type of traveler who just “wing it”. A bit obsessed? Maybe. But eating well needs good planning :) Case in point, here’s the food map I made before my trip to Tokyo two weeks ago: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zil_PTKBKcDA.kJFKoS5OvDMs

    I usually look at blogs (Traveling Hungryboy is really good, and his tastes run similar to mine), food websites like SeriousEats and bento.com, sometimes TripAdvisor for ideas. I also post a shout out to friends on Facebook for recommendations.

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