I imagine many of us have intentions of doing lots of research before we visit a new place to find out the restaurants we really want to try. However, sometimes we don’t do enough planning, or the place we want to visit is closed, or we’re simply out and about when suddenly the need to eat strikes. How to quickly pick a restaurant that stands a good chance of being delicious? I’ve developed a few tricks over the years. None of them are perfectly reliable of course, but I think they do improve your odds.
- Look where all the tourists are going – and then run the other way. Almost any restaurant that caters mainly to tourists just doesn’t have the motivation to do a great job. They don’t have many repeat customers, and most of the people they serve are only interested in having a fake "authentic" experience and getting out cheap.
- Look where locals are eating. For example, I was strolling through Rome with my daughter, getting a bit desperate for lunch and despairing of all of the obvious tourist traps. I happened to spot a restaurant in an alley where there were obvious locals eating. The men were in nicely tailored suits and an older woman was having a panini and a glass of white wine, all speaking Italian. The meal was nothing spectacular but it was quiet and quite decent and the proprietress was personable and took great care of the bambina.
- Ask a local, but be skeptical. Remember that a lot of people don’t have great taste, and others, especially in tourist areas, will simply send you to their cousin’s great uncle’s place. That is especially true when asking at your hotel – they might even get a cut.
- Grab a free paper. Especially in the US, one of the local "free papers" you find at a cafe or street stand can be an excellent source of independent reviews. You can also study the ads to figure out what the more promising areas of town are for your preferred type of venue.
- Surf menus. Many restaurants put a menu outside, and you can learn a lot from them. Check out whether what is offered sounds good and whether the price is right. Of course as a vegetarian, I’m specifically looking to see if they have at least one entree that meets my needs. If the vegetarian options sound like an afterthought, I’ll move on.
- Also look at the seasonality. If they are offering asparagus in June or a fresh tomato salad in December, you are asking for trouble. Also, if the menu has a hundred different items, ask yourself whether they can possibly do that many things well.
- If there is no menu posted, so much the better. Now you can walk in and ask to see one, and get a better look at the inside of the place. Don’t be the least bit ashamed to walk away if it isn’t what you want.
- Try to get a look at the food. If you can peek in a window or see someone already eating on the patio, often a quick glance will tell you whether it looks good.
- Take advantage of technology. If you have a laptop with you, find a place with wireless and spend 10 minutes doing some quick searches for recommendations. Try chowhound or citysearch, or just google the neighborhood plus the word "restaurant" and read a few reviews. If you are savvy with your mobile phone, you can do it that way too.
- Trust your instincts. Take a second to just feel the overall vibe of the place. If you sense there might be some love of food here, trust your gut and wander in. If not… hey, is that another menu I see down at the end of the block?
If you have other tricks that have worked for you, please add them as a comment!