FOOD & WINE TIPS

Quest for the Best: How to find the best food while on the road

September 6, 2014
Looking for a restaurant in Lyon, France where it's hard to make a mistake

Some tips for finding the best food when you are traveling

Travelers who are passionate about food are likely to spend as much time planning restaurant itineraries as they are booking hotel rooms. In fact, people are arranging entire vacations around food experiences, ranging from visiting producers and food markets to participating in cooking classes to seeking out meals at iconic restaurants.

“People want to experience the life and culture of the places they visit, and food is one way to do that — to literally take in the culture,” said Maureen Costura, an assistant professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

To some extent, every tourist thinks about his or her next meal, even those who are more interested in monuments and museums than menus. “Vacations are expensive and big events in people’s lives,” Costura explained. “We want to maximize our food experiences so we don’t feel our precious leisure time is wasted.”

But when you’re several hundred miles from home (perhaps, even in another country), knowing whom to trust and what resources to rely on can be challenging. Many travelers harbor the fear of winding up at eateries where they will be overcharged for mediocre meals.

So how can you best avoid tourist traps and find authentic culinary experiences? Here are some tips for things to do before you leave home and after you get to your destination:

Ask your friends

The most straightforward approach to getting suggestions is to seek out recommendations from trusted networks of friends, relatives and business associates, perhaps via a phone call, email or on social media (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.). This is when having 500 Facebook friends can come in handy!

People who know your tastes often can make an educated guess about the kinds of foods and establishments you will like. Lawyers Nina and Tim Zagat started their restaurant guide in 1979 (often referred to as the “burgundy bible”) by surveying friends. The data collection and review strategy they developed was considered so valuable that Google acquired their company in 2011, reportedly for more than $150 million.

Check some apps

Everyone seems to have a favorite “go-to” website or app they use for restaurant recommendations. To start, there are venerable sites like Yelp, Zagat, LocalEats, Foursquare, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor, OpenTable and Chowhound. These include a mix of professional and user reviews, ratings, recommendations and tips, menus, forums and photographs of dishes.

Even doing a simple Google search for restaurants at a particular location now brings up a black bar at the top of the page with summary recommendations and ratings on a 5-star scale.

There also are in-depth reviews on food blogs such as Serious Eats, Eater or those created by independent bloggers. Serious foodies often cross-reference multiple sites and resources.

The crowded field is expanding rapidly, with interesting newcomers too.

Launched in January 2013, Find. Eat. Drink. is a free iPhone app that amasses recommendations from chefs, sommeliers, bartenders, baristas, and food artisans, covering 150 cities and towns in the U.S., Canada, Europe and several cities in the Caribbean and Mexico.

Find. Eat. Drink. (screen shot )

Find. Eat. Drink. (screen shot )

Chefs Feed, available for free on both iPhone and Android platforms, offers a growing digital database showcasing the favorite dishes of nearly 1,000 professional chefs in most major U.S. cities as well as in London, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The dishes are organized so they can be searched by location and type of cuisine.

Chef's Feed (screen shot)

Chef’s Feed (screen shot)

Some apps and mobile websites allow visitors to make restaurant reservations directly. In May, TripAdvisor acquired LaFourchette for about $140 million, a reservation platform for restaurants in France, Switzerland and Spain that competes with OpenTable.

Give print a chance

Newspapers, city and regional magazines, and travel guides often run in-depth restaurant reviews written by professional reviewers and journalists. Compared with user reviews, these offer the added credibility of being written by an individual whose professional reputation — and that of the media outlet — are at stake, said Joshua E. Perry, an assistant professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University.

Even if you’re not a subscriber to a far-away publication, you may be able to Google many of the reviews and read them online.

Ask a local

Many travelers depend on the suggestions of people they meet along the way, such as taxi drivers, police officers and hotel staff. “Because they live and work in that town, they know the best restaurants that provide the best value: good food at a good price,” said Karen Mishra, a professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., who runs a marketing firm called Total Trust in Durham. “They have no agenda: nothing to gain or lose from telling the truth,” she said.

Another often-neglected resource: Tourist information boards or local tourism offices, which have a vested interest in their visitors having positive experiences. Many offer online listings of restaurants or can make recommendations.

Consult a concierge

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Budapest

Most upscale hotels and resorts have professional concierges dedicated to helping guests navigate their stay, offering expert advice about tours, tickets, transportation and, of course, restaurants. A concierge also can help obtain hard-to-get or last-minute reservations.

While some travelers complain that these recommendations may be tainted by kickbacks, those usually are the few bad apples in the bunch.

“A bad recommendation will come back to hurt not only the concierge but the hotel, as well, because travelers now have the power (through social media) to tell all,” Mishra said.

Be spontaneous

Tourist checking out the menu

Tourist checking out the menu

Not every meal has to be planned. Sometimes it’s best to follow your nose and grab a bite from a nearby cafe or food cart that’s close to the attraction you’re visiting. Increasingly, hotel restaurants are improving their dining rooms not only to attract guests, but also to generate revenue from loyal locals.

“For me, part of the joy of travel is new experiences,” Costura added. “If you want to experience exactly the same thing, you can at home, save your money and stay there.”

Blackboard menus are a good sign

Blackboard menus are often a sign of fresh food

Additional tips

  • When asking for advice, be specific in terms of your preferences and budget (for example, how important is ambiance?).
  • Don’t forget that popular restaurants often require reservations well in advance.
  • Don’t make the mistake of judging a restaurant by size or location.
  • Opt for menus that are written in the local language, rather than multiple languages for tourists; familiarize yourself with local dishes you want to try.
  • Look for blackboard menus; they often suggest dishes that are prepared with fresh market ingredients.
  • Read menus to see whether they tell where foods are sourced.
  • When traveling with kids, inquire ahead whether the place is child-friendly.
  • Avoid restaurants with hucksters on the street who try to entice you to eat at their venue.

[This article was published in the Sunday Travel section of the Chicago Tribune and also the Sun Sentinel on September 7, 2014.]

  • Reply
    Lisa Richardson
    September 7, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    Irene, Never heard the Zagat story! Thanks for some new apps (Chefs Feed & Find.Eat.Drink) to try out. Typically, I cross-reference, make some reservations, and then tweak away at the destination!

  • Reply
    Katrina
    September 8, 2014 at 2:10 am

    Some great advice here, definitely agree with ask a local! One thing to be aware of though is that often tourism offices have affiliations with certain restaurants so you may not get the most unbiased view. That’s not to say they won’t recommend some good restaurants though 🙂

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 8, 2014 at 10:52 pm

      I posed that question to a tourism office and they said that they want their visitors to return with positive feelings…FWIW~

  • Reply
    Muza-chan
    September 8, 2014 at 2:23 am

    Interesting, thank you (^_^)

  • Reply
    Charles McCool
    September 8, 2014 at 11:54 am

    For me, the gold standard are those free weekly local newspapers’ annual “Best of” issues. If you cannot find the information online, a quick visit to public library might work. Oh, yeah, librarians are some of my favorite locals to ask for dining suggestions.

  • Reply
    Robert Bruce
    September 14, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Sure, there’s Yelp, Google and Facebook local, but the best way that I’ve found to find the best food in town is to do a search of local sites, message boards, etc. Using Facebook’s advanced search is also an indicator, you can find places people check in a lot, read their reviews. I like the idea of asking a librarian. Have to give them something to do 😉

  • Reply
    Arline Zatz
    September 26, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    I usually ask locals who are shopping in an area where I’m interested in a certain restaurant, and also stop in at shops and ask storekeepers where they eat.

    I also look inside restaurants during lunch or dinner times and if the restaurant is empty, I won’t bother eating there. It’s usually a tell-tale sign that the food isn’t good. Learned that lesson when I was in Amsterdam, asked someone who had a business next to an Indonesian Restaurant and was told it was excellent. Although it was empty I should have followed my gut feeling and not gone inside – but I did along with 4 other people. The food and service was terrible. Turned out the business next door also owned the restaurant!

    Guess you can’t always take the word of a shop keeper 🙂 and it certainly helps to see if the restaurant is crowded or not.

    Best, Arline Zatz

  • Reply
    Arline Zatz
    September 26, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    I forgot to mention that I often check TripAdvisor and haven’t been disappointed in the evaluations thus far.

    Best, Arline

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      September 26, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      Agree that the empty restaurant is a very bad sign:-)

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