Many of us rank finding and enjoying delicious food as one of the most important aspects of travelling – if not the most important! Food is the quickest way to get to the heart of a country; to understand its people, customs, culture and history. However, it can be challenging to discover authentic places to eat and drink in a sea of tourist traps and mediocre restaurants, especially if you don’t speak the local language and the cuisine is very different from what you’re used to back home. In this post, I’d like to share some strategies I’ve picked up along the way to increase your chances of having some fantastic meals during your trip. If eating well is a priority when you travel, this is the post for you!
Do your research
Log onto Instagram and Pinterest and search for the city (or cities) you’ll be visiting. Check out where the locals and tourists have tagged themselves eating and drinking and gain an insight into typical dishes and local specialties. Make a note of specific dishes on your phone’s Notes section (or in a notebook) so you can recognize the names on the menu once you’re there. Make a note of restaurants, cafes and bars you want to visit on Google Maps and then download an offline version of the map, which you can access without data or WiFi.
If using Google or another search engine, be as specific as possible. For example “Best schnitzel in Munich”, “Best cinnamon buns in Copenhagen” or “Best cacio e pepe in Rome”. I’ve found that the Google restaurant reviews section is quite accurate, as these reviews are usually written by locals recommending places in their own cities. If you see a common theme, such as recurring complaints about the service, stingy portion sizes or hidden charges on the bill, there is probably a genuine issue there.
If you know me in real life, there’s a good chance I’ve recommended a restaurant (or five) to you before. Use your network, people! Ask your friends & family if they’ve been to the city you’re visiting, and if they have any suggestions.
Once you’ve exhausted your real-life contacts, check out Youtube! There are thousands of videos about eating and drinking in every city around the world. I am going to Japan in November (yay!) and have found out so much from Paolo in Tokyo, Tabi Eats and Strictly Dumpling. Mark Wiens is one of my favourite food vloggers: he is so passionate about food and I love the way he describes everything he eats in such vivid detail.
When you’ve arrived at your destination, ask the reception staff at your hotel/hostel (or your Airbnb host) where they go for dinner with their friends, not just where tourists tend to go. If you’ve built a rapport with a taxi driver, Uber driver or bartender, ask where they like to eat.
Don’t get lost in translation
Translate important phrases that explain any allergies or food intolerance you may have (using Google translate or a dictionary). You may even want to create some self-explanatory images, like a shrimp with a large red cross over it to signify a shrimp allergy. After all, a picture says a thousand words and “Please don’t serve me shrimp!” can be five of them.
Try food you don’t have access to at home, or have never heard of before. I avoid fast food restaurants and chains like Starbucks, because I can easily visit them back home and want to try something interesting and different when I’m away. I’m a particularly adventurous eater with the foodie philosophy to try anything once! If you see something appetizing on the menu or in front of another diner in the restaurant, point it out to the waiter/waitress and order one for yourself. If you’re feeling very courageous, choose something off the menu at random and embrace the uncertainty of what might be placed in front of you. Who knows, it might be the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted!
Unless you have a serious allergy or intolerance, don’t expect small local restaurants to cater for your dietary preferences. By all means, ask what the dish contains but don’t order something and then ask to make a lot of changes to it. In my experience, some countries are more accommodating than others when it comes to modifying dishes. Some countries can be very inflexible. Asking for a side salad instead of fries is an easy swap, but making larger modifications can be seen as confusing, irritating and even sacrilegious depending on what you’re asking.
I know some of you will be thinking “But the customer is always right! I should be able to have the meal exactly how I like it!”. You are the customer, yes, but the chefs are the professionals. Many chefs take a tremendous amount of pride in the food that they serve, especially if food is deeply ingrained in their culture. They have worked and trained hard to create the dishes on their menu. I first moved to Italy, I was shocked to find anchovies on so many pizza dishes, either lounging on top, all silver and glistening, or sneakily buried under layers of cheese. I questioned the common pairing of anchovies and zucchini, but after a couple of years living there, I was a convert!
Follow your senses
In this digital age of smart phones and selfie-sticks, we sometimes forget to just wander, following our curiosity and senses. Look and listen for groups of locals queuing outside restaurants. Find the source of tantalizing scents that waft your way. Observe at what people around you are eating and drinking. For example, some of the best gelaterias I’ve been to were discovered by seeing people eating gelato in the street and either asking where they got it or spotting the place they’d just left.
Do as the locals do.
Some cultures enjoy long, laid-back lunches, whereas others opt for quick and easy lunches, and elaborate, leisurely dinners. If you imitate these eating habits when you’re abroad, it can give you an interesting insight into another culture. Look for workers on their lunch break, queuing for and ordering street food. They might introduce you to your new favourite lunch spot!
Instead of sit-down lunches and dinners, mix it up by visiting markets and popular food trucks & stands. You might get lucky and find a nearby bench to perch on or you might have to eat while walking. I’m a big fan of restaurants, but there’s something energizing about eating on the go. You can observe the world around you, people-watch, make progress with your sightseeing tour and fill your belly at the same time. Your meals will be cheaper too because you’re not paying for table service.
My boyfriend and I always try to make reservations at restaurants we really want to visit. For places we’re not 100% sure about, we just decide on the day, head over there and wait for a table. If you’re a group of 4 or more, it’d definitely a good idea to make a reservation. Be flexible about when you eat: I normally try to sit down for lunch and dinner at the same time as locals, even if it’s later than my normal routine back home. That way you’ve got more of an interesting, authentic atmosphere than eating earlier in a practically empty restaurant, or only surrounded by fellow tourists.
As a typical millennial, I really dislike using the phone, so I usually email restaurants directly (look for their email address on their company website, if they have one) or via Facebook. Most restaurants, cafes and bars have a Facebook business page. I’ve also made restaurants via Instagram direct messages before. If you don’t have a local SIM card or a way of calling the restaurant yourself, ask the front desk at your hostel/hotel (or your Airbnb host) if they wouldn’t mind calling on your behalf.
Recognize the warning signs
Even the most seasoned travellers can end up having disappointing meals. It’s a fact of life. However, there are some tell-tale warning signs you can look out for to steer you away from the duds. I avoid restaurants with plastic models of what their food looks like on display outside their entrance. I’m on the fence about restaurants which have large menus full of shiny, low-quality photographs of every item on their menu. On the one hand, when you don’t speak the local language, seeing a photograph of what the food looks like can help you decide. On the other hand, these photos rarely make the meals look appealing and instead give the impression of a stagnant menu which is rarely changed or updated.
If a restaurant has a menu covering three or more cuisines, tread carefully. Mastering one cuisine can be hard enough but claiming to serve up food from three or more countries makes me question the quality and authenticity of said dishes. In Corfu, I remember seeing a restaurant with menus in five languages and a varied menu which included local Greek specialties, Indian curries, ribs and burgers. Needless to say, we didn’t eat there. I still have nightmares about a 99p full English breakfast I saw advertised outside a café in Italy. I wonder what was included for that bargain price!
Avoid eating next to the main tourist attractions in a city, no matter how picturesque and convenient these establishments may be. Instead, turn around and walk ten minutes in the opposite direction of the sights, then start ducking into side streets to look for somewhere more affordable and authentic. And my final warning sign? If there are waiters and waitresses hanging around outside the restaurant, trying to lure people inside by waving menus at them or blocking their path, walk on by. If a restaurant has to accost people on the street to drum up business, it’s not somewhere you should be spending your hard-earned cash!
I hope these suggestions have given you ideas about how to find incredible food during your next holiday. If you have any more tips, please leave them in the comments!
Photos from Toronto and (you’ve guessed it) Rome! I promise I have eaten in lots of other cities, I just love Italian food the most.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow