Whether you’re hitting the road for an impromptu getaway, a business trip or the long-planned vacation of a lifetime, you’ll probably agree that food is a key ingredient to making your trip a memorable one. Although national chains do offer comforting consistency in their menus, many people prefer exploring local cuisine for a true immersion into their temporary home — however, many of the best spots aren’t advertised and can be difficult to locate.
Most people want to eat well on the road, but exactly how to find the best restaurants when you travel can be a tricky endeavor. Most travel destinations are inherently unfamiliar, and restaurants may not operate the way things do “back home,” wherever that is. Fortunately there are quite a few strategies. Not anything is perfectly foolproof, but there are many way to maximize the chances you will be eating fabulous food when you travel.
Research Before You Arrive
Jet lag and hunger make even the simplest decisions seem difficult. Even something as routine as choosing where to eat can be a challenge. When you arrive at your destination, you may feel tired. You are excited to start experiencing this new area, and you do not want to sit in your hotel room sorting through the dining options. Take a little time before your trip to check out the options and read reviews on your potential dining spots. Start a list of potential restaurants that you can use once you arrive.
Reading user reviews can give you an idea of which places to choose and which to avoid, but keep in mind you will always find extremes in those reviews. Even Michelin Star restaurants receive negative reviews from people who are never satisfied. Do not get too sucked into reading the reviews. You may end up feeling more confused than you did when you started. When checking out reviews, look for the overall prevailing opinion of the restaurant rather than letting one bad review sway your opinion. Also, note how many people left reviews or rated the restaurant. If an establishment has four stars with thousands of ratings, it is likely a solid choice. On the other hand, do not get too excited about five stars if only one person has rated the restaurant. That person’s opinion could be skewed, or it could be someone who works there trying to attract people.
Read local publications and posts from local food bloggers
Add some fun research to your trip planning by reading up before you go. A treasure trove of posts from local food bloggers and reporters is a quick Google search away, and the writers’ bread and butter is finding the hot spots and spilling secrets on the hidden gems. It’s easy to save all the addresses to a Google Map or print one out and highlight the intersections worth visiting. Some regional magazines or newspapers even have yearly dining lists that take a lot of the guesswork out of a visit.
Ask real people
Getting recommendations from the hotel concierge can be a decent fallback plan, but some of the best restaurant picks we’ve gotten are from other people we’ve met along the way in our travels. Cab drivers can be a wealth of knowledge of all-night eats, and employees at popular tourist spots could have a scoop on what’s good nearby for lunch (without the long lines or the high costs). And asking people you meet can be a good icebreaker for even more tips and suggestions for your visit. Before you go, you can post on Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone in your circle has must-visit spots to share as well.
Get a Guide
As soon as you know what city you are visiting, start researching restaurants. The most obvious place to turn to is the Internet, but with millions of reviews and Web sites dedicated to food, it can get a little overwhelming. Head to the library or a local bookstore instead and check out the travel section there. Travel guides like Fodor’s and Lonely Planet offer a good overview of must-try locales, but they do tend to highlight popular tourist spots over local flavor. In addition to large travel books, many cities publish their own “best of” guides that will tell you which restaurants are considered the crème de la crème in their town. Search online to see if your destination offers a guide or if the local paper has a restaurant section.
Use Your Social Network
Millions of people use social networking, like Facebook or Twitter, on a regular basis to keep up with family and friends, so use it to your advantage and ask anyone who’s visited your destination before to comment on their favorite spots. Once you’ve exhausted your Friends lists, check out what other people are saying about regional eats on Twitter by running a Twitter search for the cities you’re curious about. Many locally owned eateries opt to post special deals and coupons to encourage repeat guests on social networks now, instead of on a Web site. Run a Google or other web search to see if the place you’re interested in is on Facebook or Twitter, and be sure to follow or “like” them to get the same deals as the locals do.
Avoid tourist traps
While they may look like great restaurants, most tourist traps are loud and overpriced. You want to find a restaurant off the beaten path that exemplifies where you are. Find a good local restaurant and support the people of the town you are visiting. Avoid the crowds and bad food at tourist traps.
Go for a walk
If you have not booked a culinary tour you can always saunter around the neighborhood. Take in what they have to offer and take your time deciding on a restaurant. Most menus will display their menus outside so you can see what they are serving that night. Wander around and see what your neighborhood has to offer and then pick out a restaurant that will suit your needs.
It’s not that there are no options at hand; the problem is that there are too many, and you’re not sure which window-paned trattoria or charming delicatessen is going to deliver what you’re after. And when you can’t decide on where to fill your belly, things have the tendency to go south, fast. Before you know it, you’re having a sad meal inside a fast-food chain because indecision and hanger got the better of you.
The trick for avoiding this is obviously to come prepared. These are the tips for finding the best places in town and avoiding the tourist traps.