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.)
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