While researching a recent story on when to hire a tour guide, I spoke to Judie House about her escape from the port-of-call traps that corral and overcharge many cruise travelers. Her decision to hire a guide with a car to zoom away from the day trippers and into the land of the locals made for the best day of her vacation -- and probably the best meal as well, as otherwise she was eating onboard the ship or in the tourist trap joints posted up within walking distance of the docks to attract as many visitors as possible.
Certainly it's not just cruisers on a short leash who end up in the same tourist trap restaurants eating poor food at high prices. Every historic or tourist site worth its brochure will have plenty of enterprising restaurant operators whose main objective is to collect as many tourist dollars as they can while also incidentally running a restaurant. This isn't to say you can't get a good meal near a tourist attraction, but you'll most often pay more than you should for a less than stellar meal.
If someone came to your home town, you could tell them exactly where to eat for the best meal at the best prices, using your local knowledge -- if only you could tap into this knowledge while traveling. The best way to do this on the road is to follow one specific but very difficult tactic: eat where the locals eat. Here are seven ways to do just that.
1. Check out locally produced "Best Of" guides.
Checking out city-specific "Best Of" guides has never failed me. Most major cities have some sort of dedicated magazine, daily newspaper, mainstream or "alternative" weekly, or other local authority that does an annual "Best Of" issue. So in Philadelphia it would be the City Paper or Philadelphia Weekly, in New York the Village Voice or New York Press, in Seattle the Seattle Weekly or the Stranger, in San Diego the San Diego Reader or CityBeat, etc.
The upside to using these sources is that their readership is truly a local one, and the mission is to seek out the best and off-the-beaten-track establishments that locals love and can afford -- not to hype the already popular tourist restaurants the Chamber of Commerce flier tells you to visit.
As a result, these "Best Of" surveys tend to be timely and merciless; for example, a very popular restaurant that is coasting on its rep will almost always be called out or at least dropped by these publications. The pubs usually have Web sites where you can find their most recent "Best Of" lists.
How to find these sites? Do a simple Web search. When I visited San Diego, I typed in "San Diego weekly paper" to find the Reader and CityBeat. I went to the CityBeat site and saw the "Special Issues" link across the top of the site, which took me directly to their seventh annual "Best Of" issue.
Note that you don't have to rely solely on the "Best Of" issues, either; most of these papers have dedicated restaurant or "eatery" sections, with heaps of reviews and recommendations.
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2. Use Web sites and smartphone apps.
In the past several months, Web site and smartphone apps have become almost the only way I look for restaurants -- in particular, I have had excellent luck with Urbanspoon and Yelp. Each has its own strength and weakness (which I will explore in a future column), but they are both fast and intuitive, so I can hit one after another in succession and choose a restaurant in less than five minutes.
I'm not really a regular Twitter user, but on a recent trip to Seattle I checked it out on the recommendation of a friend. I typed in "best Seattle breakfast," and was surprised at how useful the results were -- not to mention surprising. The most recommended restaurant was Lowell's, located in Pike Place Market, undeniably a popular tourist destination. Apparently the New York Times liked it as well, and named it the best breakfast destination in Seattle. Lowell's is a bit pricey, however, and is arguably one of those Chamber of Commerce restaurants -- so I clicked on one of the other search result links.
It led me to the Maltby Cafe, which has also won a bunch of Best Breakfast in Seattle awards, and happened to be near some friends I hoped to visit. Paydirt! As tricky and lucky as the discovery may have been, there was also no way I was going to find this place any other way.
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3. Check out the patrons.
Simply by peering in the window, you can often tell if a restaurant has earned the approval of the locals. Check how folks are dressed -- do they look like they just got off a cruise ship, or are they are in work or casual clothes? If the latter, chances are good the restaurant is filled with locals, who are your best guide to good food; local folks don't go back to a place with poor or overpriced food or service.
Of course, you'll need to be able to distinguish between "tourist casual" and "local casual," at least when you are in a foreign country. This is usually accomplished easily enough; folks pouring off a tour bus typically dress very differently than the local from around the block. If you're not sure, you can also look out for guidebooks, maps, cameras and other tourist accouterments.
Check also to see if folks are enjoying themselves. This can be a much harder thing to suss, but I have always found that restaurants where folks are laughing and talking tend to be good restaurants as well. Somehow tourist trap restaurants attract folks who are more likely to sit there and wait for something to happen -- while local eateries are places folks go to meet up, BS and have a good time in good company.
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4. Follow the crowds.
It may be counterintuitive, but in some cases it pays to follow the crowds -- if perhaps not the tourist crowds. If you find a busy restaurant, chances are good that it is busy for a good reason, especially if it passes the dress test mentioned above. At the very least, your meals will likely be fresh, as high volume usually means food does not sit long.
5. Consult a guidebook.
I recommend this tactic with some reservation, as too often you can find yourself in a restaurant surrounded by other folks holding the same guidebook. IndependentTraveler.com Editor Sarah Schlichter had just this experience: "One place I ate in Morocco was filled with people holding the same Lonely Planet guidebook I was," she recalls with a laugh. "But I've also found good places."
As is always the case with guidebooks, sometimes you need to read between the lines to figure out what to expect; I have found that the most reliable tactic you can use is to choose a restaurant that takes a bit of effort to get to. Many travelers will opt for nearby and easy, and if you are willing to walk for a bit, you can shed most or all of the tourists along the way.
6. Buy cheap.
It may seem counterintuitive to expect a better meal at a less expensive restaurant, until you remember that the tourist trap establishments often jack up prices merely because they feel they have a captive audience that knows no better. If you take a walk away from the tourist strip, you may find that prices drop to levels that the locals will actually pay. If prices seem in line with the menu and ambience of the restaurant in question, this can be a good indicator that you have found a place where real people come to eat regular meals.
7. Take a chance.
Going back to the guidebook entry above, it is worth mentioning that most guidebook writers have no more insight into where to go when they are researching the books than you do -- they often just take a chance on a restaurant, and a good meal makes the book, while a bad meal does not.
On a recent day trip to New York City, I used Urbanspoon to guide me away from trendy and overpriced SoHo restaurants toward a Chinese restaurant near the Canal Street A subway stop. As we reckoned our way to the restaurant, we passed Lupe's East L.A. Kitchen, and at a glance noticed that Lupe's passed all of the important tests of a local eatery -- regular folks dressed for real life eating and laughing inside. We put on the brakes, walked in and seated ourselves.
It turned out that Lupe's chili verde had made one of the local "Best Of" lists, and prices were definitely fit for locals. And though I wouldn't say Lupe's is specifically "family-friendly," the server had a son with the same birthday as our boy, so knew the drill perfectly and served a perfect meal.
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The Independent Traveler