When looking for restaurant recommendations at home, we rely on friends, magazines and review sites. Yet when abroad, we fantasize about a mystical “local,” someone who will guide us to the best meal of our lives, preferably somewhere “authentic” and “off the beaten path.” Though we would never expect this of a stranger on the street at home, we expect it abroad from citizens just like us.
Chicago, where I live, has a fantastic food scene. That doesn’t make every Chicagoan an expert. If you asked 100 random people where to eat, you would receive dozens of different answers.
If we don’t expect locals in our own city to be food experts, there’s no reason to assume locals everywhere else are.
But if the all-knowing local doesn’t exist, and we don’t want to resort to overpriced, chain restaurants, how can you actually find the best local food while traveling? Here are some tips.
Do your preliminary research
Before you go, do some research on the types of cuisine your destination is known for, its local ingredients and its most beloved dishes. Then do a quick search for places to eat, keeping in mind that review sites aren’t always accurate (more on this later). Eater is usually a reliable source, and places like Bon Appétit, Saveur, Roads & Kingdoms, and of course, The New York Times’ Food section are all good options that use locals or experienced international journalists who have gone through these steps for you.
Curiosity Magazine, a publication I started specifically to help travelers find their way and get advice like this, hires exclusively local writers eager to share their local food culture with visitors. Local food blogs, which you can often find with a quick Google search, are also great resources. If you see a few places showing up again and again in a variety of publications and sources, that’s a good sign.
Sign up for a food tour
Food tours are one of my favorite things to do while traveling. They give an outsider a great overview of the must-eats in a city, and are easy to find. Ask your hotel concierge, search the web for vacation packages that include food tours, check with a travel agent, or check with a local or regional tourist office. Sure, the portions are small and you’ll wander around amid a group of tourists, but you’ll also learn something and try a variety of foods in an effortless way. Most importantly, your guide is a local who obviously loves food. Ask where she eats when not working and you’ll get plenty of tips to try once the tour is over.
Trust bar and restaurant staff
“Bartenders know best” is my motto for drinking around the world. Bartenders work with and drink with other bartenders, who work and drink in other bars. Whether you’re looking for a dive bar or a fancy cocktail, your bartender — whether it’s at a hotel bar or a restaurant you stumbled into — will point you in the right direction.
The same goes for your restaurant server, who works all night with people in the food world. The advice from your bar and wait staff is some of the best you’ll get. Tip accordingly.
Don’t (blindly) trust online reviews
I spent a few years living in Rome and was always baffled with some of the top-rated restaurants on sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. “This is the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life,” someone would write about a mediocre restaurant outside the Vatican, while my favorite (and very popular among locals) pizza spot was way down around No. 200.
But keep in mind that TripAdvisor reviews are written by tourists, not locals. Maybe it is the best pizza that person has ever had, because he’s on vacation and atmosphere matters when it comes to taste. That doesn’t mean it’s the best pizza in Rome. Reviews can help you pin down suggestions in a region, or if you have specific dietary needs or preferences, but that’s about it. If you must read, look past the stars. If someone has given a place a two-star rating because of “a misplaced fork,” or something else you know wouldn’t be an issue for you, disregard the review. Service speeds, for example, are cultural, and prone to bias. Look for reviews from locals, especially those who comment on certain dishes. “This Bolognese is as good as my grandma’s.” That’s what you’re looking for.
Don’t shy away from street food, especially when there’s a crowd
Street food is usually cheap and widely available, and can give you insight into the local food culture. Just as with hot dogs in Chicago, most people can tell you where to go. However, while street food can be delicious, it can also carry the risk of food-borne illness. Watch how its prepared and handled, and follow our tips. If you’re skeptical — either of the location or the ingredients, or in a country where food-borne illness is a common problem for travelers — don’t risk it. If you see lines of locals waiting outside a street cart though, that’s a good sign that turnover is high and food is popular and good.
At restaurants, make note of long lines of tourists waiting for the No. one rated place on TripAdvisor, but also look for crowds of locals spilling out into the streets, and eating happily at local restaurants or cafes where the lines are long before the doors even open. There are a few food experiences worth waiting for, but for the most part a comfortably crowded spot beats a long line any day.
Ask the right locals, not just any local
If you’re going to do it, let’s talk about how to do it right. Keep in mind that, especially when visiting a non-western country, American tourists will often be pointed toward the most “western” place, which also tends to be the most expensive. The intentions are often good — avoidance of funky flavors or spice, for example — but the results are often disappointing.
Instead, get specific. Ask where to try a certain type of food. This is where your preliminary research comes in. Discuss your price range and the atmosphere you’re looking for, and convince them you really, truly do want to try local dishes, regardless of ingredients. Plus, there’s always a chance you’ll get lucky and run into the local who is passionate about and really does know a lot about food, and then you’re in for a treat.
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