One of the best ways to discover a new destination is through its food. A shot of soju at a restaurant in Seoul allows you to peek into Korean culture. Whether it is biting into an Oliebol (Dutch doughnut) or indulging in Okinawan Yakisoba you get to explore deeper into your destination. That being said, here are my tips on maximizing your experience (and your taste buds).
1. Find out what’s good before your fly: Most destinations have a signature dish. If you go to Brussels, you must eat the famous frites. My tip: Maison Antoine in Brussels. If you head to Annapolis you must have Maryland Crab. My tip: Cantler’s, it’s quite busy in the summer (be prepared to wait an hour) but worth the visit! Find out which culinary treasures your destination known for via the tourist board websites and local blogs. I still wonder who goes to Paris and eats at McDonald’s!
2. Step away from the tourist hot spots: It’s easy to eat near the main squares where there are rows of restaurants and hostesses eager to get you into their eateries. Some of the best restaurants I’ve found have been tucked away in an alley or a side street, such as L’Ange Gardienin the 20th arrondissment in Paris. The restaurant wine list specializes in small cellars across the South of France and has the best rice pudding I’ve ever had! Sometimes I’ve found the best restaurants just from walking around a random neighborhood.
3. Ask your hotel staff:Many travelers automatically head to the concierge for foodie tips. I’ve received great recommendations from other staff members of hotels, from the front desk to the hotel manager. One of my most memorable meals of 2014 took place at a restaurant called Mossel & Gin in Amsterdam at the recommendation of WestCord Art Hotel Amsterdam manager, Patrick.
4. Step away from your comfort zone: Order items you don’t have the time (or the skill) to make at home (like homemade pasta at Lupo Verde DC) or things that you usually don’t eat. I’ve never been a fan of venison however, I decided to order it in Stockholm and it changed my opinion about the meat forever. Tip: if you take the plunge and don’t like the meal, most restaurants are understanding enough to exchange your order.
5. Do not underestimate the hotel restaurant:Years ago, it seemed like a hotel restaurant was filled with lonely business travelers and mediocre meals. Many hotels have hired top chefs to either consult on their menus or be executive chefs. For example, The London NYC Hotel has Maze by Gordon Ramsay which has an exquisite bar menu. Check out the hotel restaurant reviews on Yelp. Also, do not underestimate a hotel bar. The Hotel La Concha in San Juan has some of the best dancing on the weekends in Puerto Rico.
6. Do not get turned off by a menu in a different language:I actually get a warm and fuzzy when I see menus not published in English. Usually it’s pretty indicative of a local spot. Most servers have working knowledge of English to guide you through a menu or if you are in a place off the radar, try Google Translate which also has a picture translate option. The photo part of the app is not 100% reliable but at least it translates key words. (Again, refer to tip #4)
7. Research tipping: In the US, we’re accustomed to tipping at a restaurant from 18-20% whereas in Europe a service charge is included in your meal and you can round up the bill or leave small bills. In Japan tipping is considered rude (I was once chased by a bartender at a club who returned my tip). Tip: a handy resource:great tipping guide from Frommer’s.
8. Research customs: Are you dining with business associates or prospective clients? Research the local dining culture. In Korea, it is common to order for a whole table and share the meal among your colleagues. In Japan slurping your noodles is common and expected. In the Western world, it is common to order individual meals. In Belgium a waiter will ask you if the food was good and they expect a sincere response.
9. Explore Markets and Street Food: Not only do farmermarkets, food halls, and street food are a great way to explore the culture of your destination, but it’s usually an affordable dining option. One of my favorite places to head for street food in Puerto Rico is Pinones, less than a 10 minute drive from San Juan airport. The beach area is lined with food stands making delicious cod fritters, crab empanadas, and fresh coconut juice. You can have a meal for two for $10. Some people are afraid of street food. I have a strong stomach and never had problems eating at the markets in Thailand. Unfortunately, my husband does not but he prepares for it. Tip: If you are feeling adventurous, always make sure to pack Imodium in your toiletry bag!
10. Find foodie inspiration online: Us foodie/travel bloggers do the homework for you, use us! I discovered a great restaurant in Barcelona called Little Italy BCN via Instagram. A friend of mine surprised his wife with a beautiful birthday brunch based on a review I wrote for Lavagna in Washington, DC. In Europe, good Mexican restaurants are hard to come by. I had the best tacos in Mexico at Tacos Rigo thanks to the recommendation of Marginal Boundaries blog. On twitter, I found Primo 135 in New York City West Village. Not only was the food delicious, we loved the quaint neighborhood feel of the restaurant in such a large city. Tip: reach out to your favorite travel or food blogger via social media and ask them for recommendations. They usually respond!
11. Reviews: During my recent trip to Vienna, we wanted to have a traditional Wiener Schnitzel away from the tourist crowds (see tip #2). Decided to test out Yelp in Austria and found a restaurant 10 minutes away from the hotel. We knew we hit the jackpot when all the reviews were in German (use Google Translate app or in my case a German speaking husband). Also, Open Table allows you not only to make dinner reservations (they are currently expanding their international options) but you can also see reviews of the restaurant before you reserve.
12. Ask a Local: If you are traveling for Business, ask your colleagues what’s the best café or restaurant. I recall having the best mofongo (mashed fried plantains) in Santo Domingo at the recommendation of one of my local colleagues. Tip: talk about your trip with your friends, they may have a friend or a family member would love to share their favorite spots.
13. Enjoy: To me, travel is about opening my eyes and palate to new things. It’s to return from a trip and have lasting memories of a memorable meal whether it is cheese and champagne along the Seine or eating Korean street food in Seoul for dinner on my way home from work. It is to go home to my parents in Western NY and cook mussels in white wine sauce from a recipe I learned in Brussels. What are your Dining Traveler tips? Tweet them to me via @diningtraveler for a chance to get mailed some culinary goodies! (Exp Mar 15th)