How To Find Good Restaurants When You Travel
A useful tip when travelling abroad and soliciting a restaurant recommendation from a local, is to ask them much more specific questions than just "Where's a good place to eat?" Such as: "Where do you like to eat?" /"What's the best thing to eat there?" and "Do you go there often?"
I can't count the number of times I've been pointed to a restaurant that locals assume "foreigners" will like, rather than one they themselves might frequent. Also, you can’t assume that all locals always eat out a lot. Sometimes for whatever reason, they might not eat out often at all and a restaurant they went to and enjoyed on a special occasion 2 years ago could very well have gone off the boil. Asking what their favourite dish at somewhere they like to eat will both give you an idea of what the restaurant serves and whether your tastes align.
HOTEL STAFF AND TOUR GUIDES I remember going to a restaurant in Marrakech that had been recommended by and escorted to by our tour guide, (a slightly dodgy guy who stole my fountain pen). It was full of foreigners just like us and had correspondingly high prices (I think there was also some kind of show too!) I saw the tour guide having a little something slipped into his hand by the owner when he delivered us. These days I would just leave, but I was young and green back then. Needless to say, the food was horrible and my friend ended up getting food poisoning. Once she’d recovered, we explored on our own, discovering some great (and dirt cheap) local places, much to the horror of our hotel receptionist, who confessed that yes, he *did* eat in one or two of them himself`, but they weren’t ‘good enough’ for foreigners.
TOURIST BOARDS It's a shame, but often tourist boards aren’t much help. Most often they’re going to promote places who they have an affiliation with - whether through advertising or membership fees, rather than those that are the best, or even the best fit for what the traveller is after, or again, what they think the average traveller is going to appreciate, or feel "safe" in.
TRIPADVISOR ET AL Then there are sites like "TripAdvisor," where people go to look up what is number 1 hotel or restaurant or whatever and put it on the top of their list. Safety in numbers. They have an ok time, come home, post about it and so the place continues its domination. Below is an example. TripAdvisor number 1 restaurant in Rome is apparently an American brew pub.
TRAVEL ARTICLES & RESTAURANT GUIDES Travel writers who often have a trip organised by a tourist board or other interested party are often taken to places by the people organising the trip. Sometimes, the places they visit really *are* the best. Other times, a PR representative of the restaurant has offered a free meal. It is unfortunately part and parcel of being a travel-writer - there is no way they could afford to pay their own expenses on what they get paid for the pieces they write (I believe some lucky US journos still have publications who do this for them, but it's very rare these days outside the US). I don't know any travel writers who would write positively about a 'bad' place, just that their experience has usually 'guided' by others with a vested interest. Having said that, sometimes travel writers *do* get time off in the destination they're covering to explore and find some with great off-the-TripAdvisor-list discoveries. With influencers check if their posts raving about places have been tagged as "hosted," "guest" or "paid partnership," and keep that in mind if you choose to follow their lead.
If you love fancy restaurants, the Michelin guide is useful, but, again it's not foolproof - there seem to be a hell of a lot of one-star restaurants around the world that have nothing that sets them apart from all the others. Plus, often you'll be eating a generic international menu rather than anything particularly local, although this is changing as restaurants such as Noma have promoted the use of hyper-local ingredients. If you do want to eat somewhere really special, make sure to book a long way in advance. Having said that we once got into a 2-star for a lunch sitting in off-tourists season with an hour's notice. FRIENDS If you have food-loving friends whose judgement you trust, who’ve been to the destination, by all means ask. They can be a valuable source - just find out how *they* heard about the places they're recommending (and if it's via TripAdvisor, find new friends ;) )
AND BACK TO LOCALS Yes. Ask a local. Or multiple locals. Just try to suss out whether they're foodies rather than assuming all locals are food lovers or frequent diners. Even better, try making friends with your waitstaff when you do find a good place and ask them for their recommendations (sitting at the 'bar' at a restaurant where you have lots of face time with staff is perfect for this). Sure, being hospo people, they'll no doubt recommend some of their friends' restaurants, but they usually have their finger on the pulse of the local scene.
GO WITH YOUR GUT Best of all is to use gut instinct and discover places for yourself. Get away from the tourist hotspots - sometimes, all it takes is moving a street or two from a major site, where restaurant make money selling over-priced, quasi-familiar dishes to tourists. Have a quick recce. 1. Look at the menu - does it have any red flag dishes ("spaghetti bolognaise?") 2. Look at the prices - are they tourist prices or local-prices? (or no prices at all, like this scammy Greek restaurant) 3. If possible, try to discern how many local-looking diners are eating there 4. Does it look well-kept? How is the atmosphere - are there happy-looking diners, smiling staff, good smells etc?) 5. I've never had a great meal with any kind of "cultural" show. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I reckon it's rare.
AND FINALLY... Don't be afraid to walk out. I've sat in places and realised before we've ordered that it was a mistake. If I'm comfortable doing it and haven't used any of the cutlery/crockery or ordered, I'll just leave. If for some reason it doesn't feel right to do so, then I'll just have an aperitif or a snack and go. If you're not comfortable doing so, just order the smallest, cheapest thing on the menu, eat and go.
My last piece of advice - just as you shouldn't going grocery shopping when you're hungry, don't go restaurant hunting when you're hungry/hangry either - I can guarantee from (very recent!) experience, it will only end badly.