These days we are all relying more on sites like Trip Advisor, Foursquare, and Yelp (though Yelp is used more in North America) to find a good place to eat out when travelling. But there is a lot to be said for going offline to walk around and follow your instincts when exploring a new culture’s culinary scene. The well traveled know that the best meals happen when you just stumble upon the right restaurant at the exact right time, when from nowhere emerges the perfect bowl of pasta, an unexpectedly delicious curry, or altogether new dish in a foreign country. It’s one of those micro-adventures that make travel so rewarding. The find elevates the meal, and the discovery becomes part of the experience.
While these finds are largely down to luck, there are characteristics one can keep an eye out for when picking a restaurant while traveling. Below are just a few of the things I look for in an impromptu meal while on the road.
- Other diners. It’s the live version of online recommendations. If locals are eating there, the spot obviously has something going for it. Moreover, you want a place with good turnover if you are worried about the freshness of the ingredients.
- No stock photos of food. Not in the window, not on the wall, not on the menu either. I don’t know why restaurants decorate their walls with food they are not serving. It’s a lazy choice, and usually leaves the diner disappointed when they don’t receive what was seemingly advertised. Similarly, photo depictions in menus also indicate an overly touristed spot, though this is more common practice in parts of Asia and doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad choice.
- Child labor! No, we’re not talking human rights abuses here, but in many parts of the world, parents will have their children helping out in the family business. Any indications of a family run restaurant are a huge plus. If you see a multi-generation family table, you can be sure it’s a good bet, as family run restaurants are just more invested in maintaining a good reputation.
- Hand written specials. Who doesn’t love to see specials written in chalk on a mounted board? It gives the menu a personal touch, and indicates that the kitchen is open to challenging themselves and not flying on autopilot.
- No excessive marketing materials. If there is too much sponsorship by drinks companies, which could mean branded awnings, chairs, menus, and drinks cards, you get the feeling the restaurant’s income is not reliant on the food. Better to see the decour reflect personal choices rather than under-the-table payments.
- A short menu. I much prefer to see a restaurant do a few things right than have an encyclopedia for a menu. Too much choice actually isn’t a good thing, especially with an unfamiliar cuisine. Moreover, it indicates pre-prepared and frozen food. Note that there are any number of examples in Budapest of great restaurants with long menus, like Pozsonyi Vendéglő and Rosenstein Vendéglő, but in general a short menu is an indication of good culinary editing.
- The vibe. The vibe reflects that intangible feeling you get walking into a place. Are you greeted? Are the staff buried in their phones? Does it feel comfortable, welcoming, and friendly? There is only a split second to decide before feeling compelled to sit, while it’s still easy to escape the attention of an aggressive waiter or host. Often whether to stay or keep moving is determined by vibe alone.
Of course the most important factor is that the restaurant is there at all. In remote locations, sometimes that is enough. And, in the end, even a bad dining experience can make for an interesting story.
Got any qualities you look out for in restaurants while traveling? Did you have an unexpected and amazing culinary experience by just dropping in some place? Leave your thoughts and stories in the comments below.