Sure, you can pull into a familiar chain restaurant on your next road trip, family vacation or business trip, but part of the fun in traveling is experiencing local dining. How do you go about finding those local gems? It is not always easy, especially when you are not familiar with the area or when you have different food preferences than your travel companions. Check out our tips on how to find a good restaurant while traveling if you want to eliminate those roadblocks to great dining.
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.
Look for local city guides to get a more balanced review of hot dining spots. Those local blogs or city guide websites tend to give you an insider's view, so you are more likely to find the hidden gems that do not advertise heavily online. Search for local food bloggers who offer restaurant suggestions. Local newspapers and lifestyle magazines may publish restaurant reviews that provide more detail and structured feedback from someone who knows more about food than the average diner. Keep in mind that restaurants with many great reviews and lots of online publicity are likely busier than some of the lesser-known restaurants in the area.
Another way to get personalized recommendations is to reach out to your social circle. A simple post on your social network of choice is likely to net many opinions on best dining options, especially if your travel plans take you to a popular destination. Pay particular attention to your long-distance friends who may actually live in the area you are visiting. You just cannot beat that local opinion when it comes to finding amazing local cuisine. If you want a particular type of restaurant, specify that in your request for recommendations. Follow up with people who leave recommendations to find out what they liked or did not like about particular restaurants. This can help you decide if the recommendation is a good one for you. For instance, someone might tell you to avoid a particular seafood restaurant, but upon additional questioning, you might find the person is not even a fan of seafood.
When getting recommendations and reading reviews, it is important to absorb the information without letting it sway you too much. People have different experiences at the same restaurant. Sometimes a bad server can make a person's experience negative when the overall service and experience is generally good. If you really want to try a restaurant, go for it, even if the reviews are mixed. Even if it does not live up to your expectations, you will have that experience, and you will not always wonder if you missed out.
Get Opinions When You Arrive
You may not know anyone who lives in the area you are visiting, but you do have full access to plenty of locals once you arrive. Test out the hospitality in the area by chatting up some locals when you arrive. Start with the concierge or customer service personnel at your hotel. They are used to offering up dining suggestions. Just keep in mind they may default to recommending the hotel restaurant or a handful of restaurants in the immediate area. Do not be afraid to ask for other suggestions away from that area.
Anyone you interact with is a potential source for recommendations, from store clerks and taxi drivers to people you meet in the elevator. It is a great way to meet new people and get a feel for the local area. When you ask for opinions, be specific with what you want. Ask for a certain type of restaurant or an establishment in a particular area, for example. If you already have some restaurants in mind, ask the locals if they are good choices. These specific questions increase the chances of finding a restaurant you will fully enjoy.
Use an App
Whether or not you do your research ahead of time, you may decide at some point to choose a restaurant on the fly. Maybe you ventured longer than you planned and did not look up restaurants in the area. Perhaps the kids got hungry sooner than you expected, and you need to find a restaurant immediately. Some people simply like to wait until they arrive to see what sounds good. Whatever the reason, having a quick way to look up restaurants saves you from having a bad dining experience.
Mobile apps are a great way to figure out how to pick a restaurant when traveling, especially when you are not sure where to eat. Many apps let you search on a map or sort the restaurant options by ratings, cuisine type, price range and other details.
Scope Out the Options
As you get a feel for the area, pay special attention to local restaurants. Which ones are always empty, even at mealtime? You may want to avoid those establishments. There is usually a reason a restaurant does not get any business. Are there restaurants that always seem to be busy? Look for full tables, people waiting to be seated or lines out the door to find the hot spots in the area. The one time this may not hold up is if there is only one restaurant in a crowded area. The restaurant may get foot traffic because of the lack of competition in those situations.
Some smaller, lesser-known restaurants may not have the long lines or extended wait times if people do not know about them yet. However, even the hidden gems usually get regular traffic from neighborhood locals who know about their amazing food.
Take a Culinary Tour
Tours familiarize you with the area, but they often focus on architecture or a similar aspect about the area. Culinary tours are becoming increasingly popular, especially in cities, and they are the perfect way to sample the food at local eateries while taking in the sights of the area. Sign up for a tour early in your stay, so you have time to go back to the spots you love. Some tours focus on a particular type of food, such as a pizza tour in Chicago. Others center on restaurants in a particular part of town. Find a tour that matches your interests and culinary tastes. Take the opportunity to find establishments you want to visit again during your stay. Note not only the flavor of the food but also the ambiance and the service you receive while there.
Go for Drinks
If you are not ready to commit to a restaurant for a full meal, check out a few options for drinks and appetizers. Think of it as your own culinary tour at the restaurants that make your short list. Sit at the bar, chat up the bartender to get a feel for the restaurant and ask for suggestions. You may find the service and menu options appealing enough to come back for a full meal, or you may decide you cannot handle much more than drinks. Whatever the outcome, it is a good way to sample the restaurant ahead of time.
Venture Beyond Tourist Areas
The tourist areas in any city tend to have a high concentration of restaurants, but they are not always the best options in the city. Those restaurants with prime tourist-area locations get business from travelers even if the food is not great. They are convenient, so people eat there. These restaurants often focus on volume rather than quality. That is not always the case, but it is sometimes better to avoid tourist areas to find the best food.
Think about your hometown. Some of the best restaurants are often the small places off the beaten path without neon signs to attract attention. Use that same logic to find restaurants when you are away from home. Head away from the crowds to find the hidden gems that others miss. Walk through smaller neighborhoods, or go down side streets. Make sure you stay in safe, well-lit areas and follow general travel safety tips. As a bonus, you probably will not have to wait long for a table.
Look for Local Specialties
New Orleans is known for Cajun and Creole dishes. Maine is known for lobster. Memphis is a hub for barbecue. If your travel plans take you to an area known for a particular type of food, take it as your chance to try something new, even if you would not normally choose it. Dining on the local or regional specialty food is the perfect way to immerse yourself into the culture of the area. Plus, it may expand your culinary comfort zone and help you discover a new favorite food. Whether it causes intense cravings long after your trip or you decide you will never eat it again, dining at a restaurant known for the regional dish of choice makes for a memorable meal.
Narrow Down the Options
Hours of research will not matter if you are not in the mood for the type of food offered at the top restaurants. Italian might sound great at home on your couch, but when you arrive, the thought of a heavy meal may make you feel sick. Instead, you might be in a soup-and-sandwich kind of mood. Your cuisine preference can change from meal to meal, so it is always a good idea to have some flexibility in your dining plans. Having an idea of the type of food you want is a good way to weed out some of the options. If you have a list of restaurants you want to try, take a look at the general types of restaurants on the list to narrow down the options based on what sounds good at the time.
Check Out Menus
The reputation and reviews of a restaurant are important, but it does not matter how great the food is if there is nothing on the menu you want to eat. Before you commit to a dining spot, look at the menu. Most restaurants post their menus on their websites or Facebook pages. In cities, you might find menus posted outside of restaurants, or ask to check out the menu at the front counter when you arrive. This also gives you a chance to scope out the prices, assuming they are listed on the menu. If nothing on the menu grabs your attention, keep looking.
Test the Vibe
A restaurant can look great on paper, but you may find the vibe of the spot unappealing. This can be particularly true when traveling with kids. Not every restaurant is kid friendly. The last thing you want to do is eat at a restaurant that acts put off by young diners. That first impression comes from your interactions with the person seating patrons. You can also tell just by glancing around the restaurant. Are there only adults in the dining room? Does the restaurant seem too stuffy or formal? Perhaps you want an upscale, formal meal, and the restaurant is just a little too casual for your preferences. The meal will be much more enjoyable when you find a place that suits your style.
If you are traveling with a large group, consider whether or not the restaurant can comfortably accommodate you. Some restaurants simply do not have the facilities to seat large groups together. Others do not want the hassle. Look for a restaurant that is accommodating to your group size. Another option is to accept that your group will need to break up into smaller groups for the meal.
Follow Your Instincts
Sometimes you have to trust your intuition when you are choosing restaurants. If a dining spot seems interesting, give it a try. What is the worst that could happen? You know your preferences better than anyone does. You may discover the next big thing simply by taking a chance on a random restaurant you decide to try.