Sunday, January 11, 2009

10 ways to find where (not) to eat

My worst restaurant experiences have been when I have ended up in tourist traps. Lured by a stunning location, delicious outdoor displays or convincing door men, you find that the food tastes crappy, and you nearly faint when you are presented by the bill. Having visited thousands of restaurants in my life time has given my a certain knowledge of how to steer away from tourist trap restaurants, but after all this experience, I still find myself tricked. This is after all not rocket science. Here are a few pieces of advice where not to go for lunch or dinner at your destination.

Advice 1: Stay away from famous landmarks!

When looking for a place to eat try to avoid famous streets, squares, or landmarks. Do enjoy Champs Elysees or Montmartre in Paris, Grand Place in Brussels or la Rambla in Barcelona but eat elsewhere.

Do not misunderstand - there are good restaurants even here, but they may be far apart, and high rents on these grand locations are nearly always reflected on your bills.

Eat in less glamorous locations, and return to enjoy a romantic drink while watching famous landmarks on your destinations.

Advice 2 - ask where the locals go!

When arriving at the hotel, ask at the reception or even better, in the neighborhood bar, where they would go to eat, if they had their day off. You may end up getting a terrific meal at a nice price around the corner.

As we did, during a stay in the Maria Cristina area in Barcelona. Three evenings in a row we ended up in the same great restaurant a five minute walk away from our hotel. They served great food, but we never ended up with what we believed we ordered, as the waiter could not one English, German or French word, but that was absolutely part of the charm of the place, and we were pleasantly surprised over and over again !!

Advice 3 - avoid empty restaurants

This advice does not apply to the landmark areas described in advice 1. They will always be full, as tourists as you and me will continue to be tricked to eat here - once!

I all to often fail to follow this advice myself, and this is one of the reasons why I too often leave discontent after a meal. Why should you visit a restaurant if others tourists or locals shun the place? But if the restaurant is packed with people the chances are that the food is decent and prices are reasonable.

Advice 4 - avoid pushy waiters and delicious displays

When walking in the overcrowded streets around Grand Place in Brussels you are struck by the delicious displays of food and the kind but very pushy waiters tempting you for an "exquisite meal at a low price."

Do not be fooled. What looks too good to be true, often is. My experience is that these restaurants count on people like you, and that they rarely are appreciated by the local population.

Advice 5 - look for dirty floors

This is another piece of advice related to advice number three. My good friend Øivind Grimsmo used this as one of his best indicators on where to eat in Paris.

His explanation was that where there are dirt on the floor, there are a good and steady number of visitors, indicating that the food and atmosphere is good. Whether the local food authorities would embrace this as a mark of excellence may be another question.

What if what is left on the floor reflects the hygiene in the kitchen.........?

Advice 6 - read reviews on the net

The web is becoming an important source of information for travelers. An increasing number of sites allow tourists to post reviews on hotels, sights, and restaurants at the destinations they have visited. Large sites as tripadvisors and virtualtourist may be a good source of information on where to eat.

When browsing these sites, you are recommended to look for restaurants with at least 10 favourable reviews. One or two may not be enough to reflect the standard. When you return you may register yourself to share your view helping other tourists to find where (not) to eat.

Advice 7 - look for the culinary institutions

Every city has its culinary institutions. In Copenhagen Ida Davidsen has served open sandwiches as her father and grand father and people flock to tuck into her delicacies.

Els Quatres Gats in Barcelona may boast of several world famous artists as their guests.

These culinary institutions are often superb and may you may be well adviced to try a meal there. I have visited a few of these mythic restaurants in my time and most time it has been worth while. Be aware though, that you may have to pay to eat where Salvador Dali once dined. When you have found one of these restaurants follow my next advice, that is follow...........

Advice 8 - book ahead

I was lucky to get a table the first time I booked at Ida Davidsens famous sandwich restaurant in Copenhagen. You normally have to book well ahead as you must never believe that you are the only one one that has found them.

There may be long waiting lists for the most popular places, so when you have booked your ticket, do some research and call - or send an e-mail.

Advice 9 - track the trendsetters

Eixample in Barcelona, Greenwich Village, in New York and Marais in Paris are all trendy areas for artists and for the gay community. Restaurants in these areas cater for the sophisticated crowds, and trendsetters often know where to get a good meal.

And you will find that even though they are community strongholds, many experienced travelers return to these areas over and over again as they have found that they here get the best food and the best service

Advice 10 - try the local specialties

I have never tasted pesto as the one served at Vagliagli in Tuscany, cassoulet as served in Castelnaudary and pintxos as served in Barcelona.

Avoid foreign restaurants at your destination and try to find where they serve local specialties. I have found that Italian food is at its best in Italy, and the tapas I have enjoyed in Spain are far better than those you find in other countries.

Good meals are often made from fresh ingredients. Go for seafood or lamb when visiting a Greek island, and a indulge in a freshly boiled lobster in Boston, and you may be in for a treat.

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