As a foodie, one of my most stressful experiences on vacation is picking out a restaurant. I put a ridiculous amount of pressure on myself as I attempt to find not only the perfect spot for dinner, but also for breakfast and lunch. After all, who knows when I’ll be back. Each meal has to count.
I used to waste hours combing through online restaurant reviews and guidebooks looking for someplace authentic. Someplace that’s unlike anything I can get back home. The majority of the time, I ended up eating with a room full of tourists. Restaurant reviews and guidebooks aren’t the way to conduct a proper restaurant search on vacation. Those resources cater to tourists and are filled with tourist traps that often pay to be included.
Alas, through my years as a traveling foodie, I’ve learned the following tips on how to find authentic, local restaurants when traveling.
Talk to Locals
And by locals, I don’t mean the hotel concierge. Like guidebooks, concierge opinions are often purchased as advertisement by local tourist-driven establishments. Sure, he may sound like your friend when he gives you that coupon, but he’s given it to 20 others guests in the past hour. Instead, ask locals where to eat—the lady behind you in line at the coffee shop, the man sitting next to you at the bar, clients or co-workers in the area.
Pro tip: Try a shout out on Twitter for suggestions with local food hashtags. For example, if you’re in Charlotte, ask for restaurant suggestions along with #CLTEats.
Get Lost and Look for Crowds
One of the surest places you’ll find a tourist trap for a restaurant is in the tourist part of town. For true authenticity, escape the tourist zones. For example, in Rome, skip anything near the Spanish Steps and instead check out Trastevere. Don’t just stop anywhere though. Find a restaurant with a good-sized crowd. Listen for the local accent or language. If you hear it, you found the right spot.
Pro tip: Don’t shy away from restaurants without English menus. Point to dishes at other tables that look good to you or ask the server to surprise you.
Read Travel Blogs Before You Go
Some of the best meals I’ve had when traveling are those I read about on travel blogs before I left. Us bloggers tend to over-research so that both we and our readers have an awesome time.
Pro tip: Read the comments section. Local foodies love reading what others have to say about their town and will often drop hidden gems in the comments. I ate the best fish and chips of my life at Kalky’s outside of Cape Town because of a mention in a blog comment.
Avoid Places That Advertise a Special Tourist Menu
This one should go without saying, but there’s nothing special about a special tourist menu. The restaurant is catering to what they think you want. More often than not, that’s an Americanized version of local cuisine or the worst burger and fries you’ll ever encounter.
Pro tip: Also avoid restaurants with too many selections. In Thailand, tourist restaurants are notorious for offering everything from Italian to German to Swedish to Chinese to American to Thai. None of which are edible.