These are rules that I use when traveling abroad. The rules are based on personal experience and have proven consistently reliable over the years. The rules may not apply in every situation, but they have worked for me. As a gourmet and veteran traveler who has lived abroad 17 years, has visited 55 countries and more than 550 major cities, I appreciate the usefulness of getting good travel recommendations. To share my experience and provide useful information to you, I offer the “Ten Commandments of Traveling Abroad”.
Ten Commandments of Traveling Abroad
- Thou shall NOT eat at restaurants that have pictures of their food on the menu or outdoor signs. This is a common “tourist trap” lure to catch tourists with cheap comfort food when abroad. Even “if” the food is decent, you almost certainly will be paying tourist prices for it.
- Thou shall NOT eat at restaurants with menus in more than two languages. Any menu written in more than the local language and perhaps English, is almost certainly a second glaring sign of a tourist trap. Understand that if the menu is in more than two languages, you will be paying tourist prices for their food and a bonus for their translator as well.
- Thou shall NOT eat at any restaurant with a food menu longer than four pages. If a food menu (not counting beverages and dessert) is more than four pages, it is a red flag that you are about to consume frozen food. No restaurant has the budget to keep more than several items in stock and fresh daily. Instead migrate to restaurants who have a limited menu as it will enhance the quality of the food you eat there. You will literally taste the difference.
- Thou shall NOT eat at restaurants that refuse to respond to a request for a reservation. Restaurants that refuse to respond to a phone call or email to reserve a table are almost always restaurants that are on the decline. Typically these restaurants once had good food and atmosphere enough to impress a food critic, but have since fallen on hard times. As a result, no one cares enough anymore to confirm a simple dinner reservation. Don’t waste your time and money on a restaurant in decline, there are too many others who want your business and will work hard to please you.
- Thou shall NOT eat at restaurants that have an identity crises. Is the restaurant an Italian restaurant? If so, then they shouldn’t have sushi on the menu. If an Irish pub also serves Turkish water pipes, you will also want to avoid this establishment. Restaurants without a clear culinary identity exist only to spend your money while offering little satisfaction in return. In addition, the food is almost certainly going to be frozen as well. If you find more than a handful of items on the menu that are not native to the type of cuisine the restaurants bills itself as, this is a sign that you want to avoid this restaurant. The only exception to the rule is on the “Kid’s Menu” which will typically have whatever comfort food needed to keep children quiet.
- Thou shall NOT use poor judgment when asking for restaurant recommendations. When asking for restaurant recommendations in a new city, use good judgment when selecting whom you ask. For example, often travelers will ask taxi drivers for recommendations. However there are two problems when doing so. First, look at the cleanness of the car and driver before you ask for a recommendation on eating. Does he/she look like someone with your income level and tastes. If “no”, and the answer is almost always “no”, then don’t ask for recommendations. The taxi driver will take you to places that he/she eats at, rather than the places that are the best. Second, often times the driver will bring tourists to places where they get a kickback or commission. Again, these are usually not the best places to eat and this transaction has more to do with the driver’s commission than it does with you culinary contentment. Safer bets when asking for restaurant recommendations include hotel concierges (although do discuss your budget beforehand) and local professionals that you interact with in a business setting. Both have an interest in seeing you happy during your visit and are more likely to recommend restaurants you will like.
- Thou SHALL go to restaurants that have been in business for many years. When traveling to a new city, it is impossible to know where the “latest and greatest” restaurants. Unless you are with a local, forget about finding them. Therefore when traveling without local help, migrate towards historic restaurants. First of all, they always have a great story to tell and you can experience firsthand the exact places where famous people ate and historic events took place. Second, visiting historic restaurants gives you a good story to tell your friends and family and the odds are that one of your colleagues has been or has wanted to go there. Third and finally, if a restaurant has been in business for more than a decade, it’s because they offer quality food with good service. The restaurant business is far too competitive for any business to survive long without consistently delivering value to customers. Thus, when in doubt in a new city, go with a “tried and tested” choice.
- Thou SHALL try local food and flavors when traveling. Local food is never going to taste better and be more authentic then when you are in that specific country. After all, you didn’t travel to Paris for a Big Mac and you didn’t make it to Baghdad for a pizza. When traveling abroad, be sure to try the local food at least once – and preferably on the first day or two of your journey. This way you get acquainted with the local culture faster and can more quickly decide what you like and don’t like about the local food. Locals are always great to help you experience the local cuisine and can provide some stories and anecdotes to help you better understand the country and culture.
- Thou SHALL eat where locals eat. Find out where upwardly mobile locals like to eat when looking for restaurant recommendations. If locals eat there then you can be sure you are getting authentic local food and not caught in a tourist trap. In addition, locals know the local businesses and are less likely to eat at establishments with poor service and quality. In addition, by eating where locals eat, you often get an original slice of local life which you won’t find elsewhere.
- Thou SHALL make a reservation at the restaurant you wish to visit. By making a reservation by email or phone beforehand, you ensure that they can accommodate you when you need, you give the restaurant notice of your visit and you de facto put the restaurant on notice that you expect a good meal. Fast food restaurants don’t take reservations, but restaurants that care about your dining experience do. Reserving a table ahead of time takes just a minute and ensures that you are not waiting outside for hours for a table to free up. Reserving ahead of time also gives you the chance to let the restaurant know any specific needs or desires you have such as a table with a view, a quiet and cozy corner, or you need a birthday cake, etc.