Tips & Techniques

Never Go to a Touristy Restaurant Again

September 25, 2015

How to know where not to go—wherever in the world you may be.


Even Italy has bad food. This pizza place from Gabriele Bonci is not one of them. 

 

People who have traveled with me will tell you the saddest they have ever seen me is when I eat a bad meal abroad. I of course plan trips around what kind of food I want to eat, and missing one opportunity to try something new is enough to make me weep at the table. (For example: There were tears after the first bite of a curry in Koyasan, Japan, that I saw go into the microwave and yet somehow still had crunch from the undissolved instant curry powder from the packet.)

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I’m starting to wisen up. I do my research beforehand, save places that sound good in Google Maps, and then review my nearby options when hunger—or curiosity—strikes. When you’re on the ground, there are clues that’ll help your search as well.

Greg Freitas and Natalie Compagno, owners of the Traveler’s Bookcase in Los Angeles, have been to more than 100 countries (really!) and know how to pick the good restaurants.

Here’s how they scout the good food:

  • The best marker is to see if there are any locals. You can guarantee the food is good if locals are standing in line to get in. This has proven true from Egypt to Singapore to Bangkok to Auckland to Saint Lucia. (‎This is especially true at food markets and food courts, where there are lots of options in a small space.)
  • Guidebooks can be helpful in avoiding bad places, but of course then you run the risk of dining with fifty other Lonely Planet readers. We’ll leave it to you to decide your tolerance level on that one. Regardless, though, avoid TripAdvisor like the plague: "They wouldn't know good food if it was hurled at them from a passing tuk tuk."
  • While asking locals will always bring a host of recommendations, take them with a grain of salt. Usually anyone you ask will point you to a family or friend's restaurant, as they should. But not everyone’s a critic—or can compare all their area’s restaurants to tell you about the one you’ll really enjoy.
  • The number of great food blogs popping up around the world is impressive and a great source of local recommendations. One of our favorites is TriniChow, which pointed us to some amazing spots in Trinidad. Many of your favorite American food blogs write about their trips, too, so scour their sites (101 Cookbooks has some great travel guides).
  • Avoid Americanized food altogether. American(ish) restaurants may think they're making you feel all warm and homesick by serving hot dogs and French fries, but it will likely make you want to go home quicker so you can have a good version of what you just ate. Last thing: Never ever ever eat Mexican food unless you're in North or Central America. It will be horrible, guaranteed. Trust us.

Some last clues that should tip you off to a bad restaurant:

  • Menus that list English before the native tongue.
  • A host pushing you to come in—in English.
  • An iffy or nonexistent wine list. This tip comes from Rome food expert Katie Parla and is especially true for restaurants in regions with wine production.

What tips do you have for spotting a so-so restaurant overseas? Any hilariously horrible experiences you’d like to tell us about? We want to hear!

Photos by Ryan Powell

26 Comments

ichabod May 27, 2016
When in Venice, avoid virtually every restaurant where the waiters wear a tuxedo.
 
Maggie October 30, 2015
I go to Mexico every winter (5 years) and in the city where I stay there are a lot of American expats, therefore there are many "ethnic" restaurants. I hate when my friends want to go to dinner at a French or Thai or Italian restaurant, when the best food is at the street meat taco stand for a buck.
 
Avonlm October 29, 2015
Agree with MMorris, have lived abroad for 18 years and travelled extensively and love to cook, bake and eat great food. Have also been a contributor on Trip Advisor in all the cities I have lived in or visited so take offence to the derogatory quip about Trip Advisor. Of course you need to read many reviews and there are distinctively "touristy" places to avoid which is typically near tourist attractions. Eating where locals eat is always a great idea and of course asking friends and acquaintances who live there or have visited is a good idea as well. If great food experiences are important then due your due diligence. If it is not no need to bash the rest of the "tourist" who contribute to the economies world wide.
 
M M. October 29, 2015
It seems a bit conceited to belittle everyone on TripAdvisor because "they" don't know good food. You know that these are people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures writing about their own experience, right? So it's hardly fair to disregard their opinions in favour of those of the bloggers you mention who are somehow superior in your view. Sure, you need to take some of the reviews with a pinch of salt (but isn't that true for any opinion?) but I personally have found some of my favourite restaurants all over the world through TripAdvisor reviews.
 
Bunnee B. October 28, 2015
When in Sydney, I wanted lobster - none available in the "tourist" restaurants around the Harbor. He recommended a Malaysian-Chinese restaurant practically hidden from view. Up the stairs to a lovely place where we had dinner that included the BEST lobster I have ever eaten - including fresh from the ocean in Maine. Very expensive but meltingly good. Not all concierges recommendations are bad.
 
chinacook October 28, 2015
If you like local fare especially street food as part of your travel experience, ask taxi drivers, doormen, shop clerks, etc. They have to eat cheap! And they are usually delighted to steer you to their favorite spots and show off their knowledge. Our ratio of great:lousy places from these sources is like 90:10.
 
Juan October 28, 2015
Im not agree AT ALL with eating in a mexican rest outside of central North america<br />Check 'punto mx ' in Madrid<br />Probably one of the best mex rest in the world !!!
 
CM October 28, 2015
One of my pet peeves is the derogatory use of the word "tourist". If one is traveling, one is a tourist by definition. <br />To think that by denigrating all things touristy, somehow one becomes something other than a tourist is folly. I've traveled all over the world, and each time I do, I'm a tourist whether I like it or not. There are good restaurants and not so good restaurants -- why not use that as a criterion rather than the much maligned "touristy" criterion. Because when we travel we're all tourists, and the only way to avoid it is to not travel.
 
CFrance October 28, 2015
I didn't see any derogatory use of the word "tourist." What I read were mentions of the adjective "touristy," which let's face it, there is a clear definition for that term. There ARE restos set up to gouge tourists, and there ARE stores/shops set up to sell trinkets to the tourists that fit the definition of "touristy." Or "trap," if you will. Nobody was dissing the tourist per se, IMO.
 
DeirdreMS October 28, 2015
Thank you. I am travelling to San Francisco (from Maryland)over the hollidays and am working on this right now!
 
Julie M. October 28, 2015
Restaurants with pictures on the Menus.
 
alexkeywest October 28, 2015
Gabrielle Bonci and his Rome empire is not touristy? You jest.
 
Vanessa October 14, 2015
These are great tips! I much prefer local/hidden gems. For a few more ways to avoid tourist traps, check out blog article: http://www.theupgraded.life/2015/10/13/how-to-never-eat-at-a-tourist-trap-again/
 
Heidi September 28, 2015
I use Trip Advisor for many things as well. I also leave reviews of restaurants there. I generally read several reviews on restaurants or hotels before deciding if it's a good place to go.
 
Linda M. September 28, 2015
Have to say I use Trip Advisor for many things, including restaurants. Like all sites, including this one (;-) ) you have to take recommendations with a dose of salt and go with your gut. The recommendations are, after all, the views of the reviewer.
 
felisalpina September 28, 2015
Pick restaurants that don't look like restaurants. And ask locals, even though they may be biased. Don't go to restaurants in city centres or located on touristy promenades, but pick the ones in side streets. Beware of "secret spots". Yes, and diss trip advisor. These people can't even taste what they eat, let alone write about it.
 
David L. September 27, 2015
It was good checking with Facebook to see several friends who travelled to the same city recommending a restaurant. Although it was a couple of years ago, I know my friends' tastes so it was a good score.
 
Kristin M. September 26, 2015
We keep an eye out and avoid restaurants in Europe that have pre-set the tables for lunch with baskets of poor quality bread/rolls. We called them tourist rolls!
 
Erica September 26, 2015
Thank you SO MUCH for dissing Trip Advisor. I really thought it was only me.
 
Amy April 7, 2016
Agreed, Trip Advisor has the worst recommendations! In my hometown of Kansas City, the #1 restaurant is Capital Grille. Nothing against Capital Grille, but seriously?? A nationwide franchise?!?
 
ew20611 September 25, 2015
Oh! I disagree about mexican food. La Taqueria in Eixample in Barcelona. Very near Sagrada Familia.
 
Robert September 25, 2015
In JApan, we often looked in grocery stores for ready-made lunches. In Europe, cheese fruit and bread were always fresh. In the Middle EAst, falafel and schwarma swere always reliable street food. Local is almost always better.