On balance, we’ve had more good meals on the road than bad. Some of them were probably blind luck. Who hasn’t stumbled into a fabulous little joint and had a dinner worth talking about years later? But we do think that skill comes into play, and over the years we have learned a thing or two about finding a good meal. In fact, we think the search for memorable dining is part of the fun of travel. Here are a few tips.
VISIT THE MARKET
Apart from going nuts taking photos in fresh food markets, we also find them the best places to learn what people are growing, harvesting, catching, and eating. If you speak the language, ask about unfamiliar items. In any event, use the food labels to jot down names of things that look especially good or seem to be in season. That list will become your cheat-sheet for menus, freeing you from misleading (or nonexistent) English translations.
ASK THE EXPERTS
The butcher and the fishmonger could be your best allies in the search for a good meal. Chances are the fishmonger knows who serves the best grilled octopus, the best bouillabaisse, or the best roasted hake. He or she probably sells to those restaurants. (In a really small town, ask the fishermen at the docks.) The butcher knows who orders his best cuts of meat. There’s always the risk that the fishmonger’s brother owns the seafood restaurant or the butcher’s cousin runs the steakhouse, but we have rarely been disappointed. Don’t forget to ask what dishes to order. It’s a great way to discover local specialties that never make it to a tourist menu.
VISIT THE BAKERY
Bakeries are our go-to places for tasty, inexpensive lunches — think empanadas in Latin America or ham and cheese croissants in Paris. We’ve also discovered that most bakers love to eat, and love to talk about eating. Once we’ve made our purchase, we always ask for his or her favorite neighborhood restaurants. What’s the best place for lunch? For a casual dinner? For a big night out? We usually end up at an establishment full of local character and completely off the tourist radar. When we arrive, we tell the host who sent us — a personal touch often rewarded by special attention.
FOLLOW YOUR NOSE
One of our most memorable meals was at a rundown bar on the waterfront in Cádiz, Spain. We had stopped in for a couple of beers and a plate of peel-and-eat shrimp. The roast chicken smelled so good that we couldn’t leave without trying it, much to the amusement of the Spanish-speaking barflies perched on the other stools. The chicken tasted as good as it smelled. Good food can come with paper napkins as well as with fancy linens.
LET THE MENU BE YOUR GUIDE
Our first preference is aways for restaurants with chalkboard menus. They suggest that the chef is cooking with the freshest ingredients and is probably having fun in the kitchen. In any case, a limited menu is best. No chef of a small restaurant can offer 15 entrees unless a lot of them are coming out of the freezer. (A large restaurant with a battery of cooks is another story.) We’re also generally leery of “it’s a small world” menus with a mishmash of several cuisines or menus that seem to be following all the trends of the moment. The lack of focus suggests that the kitchen doesn’t do any of the dishes especially well.
LEARN THE ART OF ORDERING
Ask about the specials and then use your head. Ideally, they should reflect the best and most beautiful items you saw at the market, not what the chef needs to move before it spoils. If the weather’s been too stormy to fish for a week, don’t order the Dover sole. And let the server be your ally. If he winces when you order a dish, switch to something else. A good server will recommend an alternative to dishes that have been getting bad reviews from other customers. Pay attention to the small type on the menu. If the dish is well explained, it’s probably well conceived and executed. And if you enjoy your meal, be sure to ask your server for recommendations of other restaurants offering comparable quality for the price.
TRUST THE CHEF
A good restaurant dish is a small work of art where all the parts fit together. Unless you have a genuine food allergy, eat the dish the way the chef says it should be prepared. Don’t ask for an ingredient to be left out, for a substitution, or for the sauce on the side. If a dish just doesn’t appeal to you as described, order something else.
We can’t stress this enough. What’s the point of doing all this research if you’re not willing to try new things? Foods that you would never consider eating at home — organ meats or glass eels — can be surprisingly good when they are eaten in the context of a culture that considers them a delicacy. Love it or hate it, you’ll have a good story to tell your friends. And the next meal is only a few hours away. Continued...