Travel Tips Tuesday: How To Pick A Restaurant While Traveling
It’s 6 PM, and you’re HUNGRY – and getting cranky. You’re in Jodhpur, North India, and it’s so hot you’ve sweat through your shirt for the third time today. The sun is setting, the lights of the tiny narrow shops lining the streets around you are winking on, and the pitch of the traffic passing has just gone up a notch. It’s rush hour. You’ve been on the go since early morning, because you had an ambitious itinerary of sightseeing and shopping. It’s almost dinner time, and you are out of ideas.
The group you are with are all on the verge of the dreaded hunger-anger attack (aka, they’re hangry) – and if you’re traveling with your family, they are already there. Someone has to use the bathroom, urgently. You’re standing at the edge of a busy intersection, squinting hopelessly at your guidebook. All of the restaurants they have recommended are far away, and you want something closer. There are restaurants all around you – but how to know if any of them are any good?
Follow these steps to find an amazing restaurant completely off the beaten track:
1) Eat Where the Middle Class Eats. Indulge your inner-anthropologist, and try to look for/identify middle class families. This has worked in every country I’ve ever visited. Wealthy families often have cooks, or eat at very expensive restaurants. Middle class families have the same concerns that you do about food quality, cleanliness, hygiene, potable water, etc.—and if they are going out to eat with kids, they probably have HIGHER standards than you do. They also know how the food shouldtaste—and will not be afraid to complain if things aren’t up to snuff. These are generalizations, of course, but a helpful way to navigate most new cities.
2) Ask Young Families for Recommendations.Parents want only what is best for their kids. Parents of young children are even more vigilant in terms of food quality and cleanliness, no matterwhere in the world you are. So if you are at a loss, ask a friendly looking young family where they like to eat nearby.
3) Menus Are For Beginners. When you sit down at a small restaurant with an IMPOSSIBLY long menu, before you get excited about all of the conflicting meal choices, ask your waiter what the restaurant does well—and what’s available. Sure, shrimp cocktail in Kampala sounds enticing (well, maybe not), but if the restaurant specializes in spaghetti, stick with that. You may end up disappointed if you don’t ask first.
4) Be Wary of Buffets. That said, I suggest staying clear of buffets no matter where you go—but certainly any country where you are at a high risk of intestinal distress. I have never visited a buffet that was worth a night of food poisoning. (Although I did have a surprisingly wonderful experience at Baton Rouge, a buffet restaurant in Dhaka that offers 101 dishes every night). In general, order hot food prepared to order.
5) Avoid Backpacker Hangouts. In many countries, the backpacker café has an enticing allure: you haven’t eaten salad for two weeks! and suddenly you see it on the menu. Surely it will be OK here? Actually, since backpackers are often a transient crowd, the restaurant may not have to worry as much about a bad review if someone gets sick. If you’re dining on a budget, stick with the local families, who give the foreigner-only, “Recommended by XYZ Guidebook” places a wide berth. If you must go for the ambiance, stick to coffee.
What are your tips for finding an excellent restaurant in a new country?