- Food and Cooking
How To Choose A Restaurant
How To Choose A Restaurant When Travelling
For me one of the joys of travelling is tasting the local food. Unfortunately, this is not always as straight forward as it might seem. If it is your first time in a place where you do not know anyone and even worse, if you speak a different language then finding a good well-priced restaurant can be more difficult than finding a three leaf clover. And you surely know how frustrating it is paying good money for bad food.
I had the most delicious chicken drumsticks in raspberry sauce one day that we were visiting Montmartre in Paris. Maybe we had too much to eat, too much wine, or it was just the beauty of the surroundings, but we left without taking note of the restaurant's address. Nevertheless, I went back several times afterwards and never found it again. So, if you find YOUR place take care of it, you do not want to come back in two years to find that either you cannot find "your" restaurant or that the restaurant is still there but it has changed hands, so you will not find that delicious poulet a la framboise anymore.
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There Are A Few Pointers To Choosing A Good Restaurant:
- The menu. Small European towns only have a couple of restaurants. Have a look at the menu displayed on the outside before going in. If it's a limited menu, the chances are that they probably do it well. But if there are a lot of menu items from different parts of the world, or even from other regions, watch out as they could all be mediocre, if not bad.
- Cleanliness. If the restaurant looks clean, there is a good chance that the kitchens will be clean too.
- The smell. If passing by from the outside you can scent the meat slowly cooking and the onions melting , then you should go into that restaurant. If you cannot smell the food cooking in a restaurant it either means that they have excellent ventilation or that they are going to serve you micro-waved food.
4. Destiny And Luck, Picking A Restaurant On A Whim.
You might trust your first impressions and choose a restaurant that looks good and inspiring. In France, Italy and Spain do not rely on the exterior or decoration of the restaurant as they are not indicative. It is a big risk, you can have a pleasant surprise and find a jewel or it could be the worst meal ever.
My Rome Experience:
From six days in Rome only once, more by luck than good judgment, we found a Roman jewel in the most unexpected little street near the Trevi fountain. The place was absolutely tiny; instead of individual tables it had one line of three long tables. It was a family owned restaurant and we ate dishes that I had never heard off, each more delicious than the previous one, accompanied by a ruby red wine. We had the restaurant to ourselves, the food was delicious and the ambiance very familiar and friendly. It was our best meal in Rome. To top it off just before leaving, the Nona invited us to a glass of Limoncello specially brought to her by a Calabrian nephew. We tried to go back next day, but as we hadn't paid attention to the name of the restaurant or the street we never managed to find it again in that labyrinthine spaghetti of narrow streets.
Lesson to be learnt? If you find an exceptional restaurant make sure that you take the name and address. Most of them will even give you a card with directions to arrive if you ask.
Warnings: Do not choose a restaurant this way if you have invited someone special or you are celebrating a special occasion. A friend of mine found a mouse running under her chair on a restaurant he had invited his wife to be... it totally ruined the ambiance for asking her to marry him!
5. Ask The Locals.
Not only you can get information at the local tourist offices but the best advice comes from people that you meet in the streets. Ask the girl who sells the postcards, or the man who just sold you that silly t-shirt, where can you taste some good local food.
If you do not speak the local language, just have a good look. Wait until lunch time and see where all the shopkeepers are going for their lunch. In the big cities you will see where the office workers are heading to. If you are on the road, usually the best places to eat are those restaurants, just by the road, full of truck drivers. They are not very nice looking -the restaurants or the truck drivers- but usually the food is good with big portions and good prices. The food might not leave a long lasting memory but at least you will enjoy a good filling meal.
Choose a popular restaurant. Usually a popular restaurant means that the food served is good, although that is not a certainty. We have been fooled this way several times.
A place can be popular just because of its location -mainly in big cities near tourist areas-, or maybe it is the cheap prices, or the beautiful waitresses? Who knows! This is one of the least reliable ways of choosing a restaurant. Sometimes a place is just fashionable regardless; it might be the place to be seen, like most terrace restaurants in Puerto Banus, Spain, which are always full of customers but their culinary abilities might be way below standards.
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7. Gastronomic Guides
In France and Spain generally you can trust the gastronomic guides. Even if you do not have a guide or the inclination to read one, you can look for restaurants that have the accredited "stars" or "epis" at the main entrance. Usually, this means that the place has been tried and tested successfully.
8. Friends Recommendations.
This is the most reliable way of choosing a place, but it is not infallible. You need to have similar taste to your friends otherwise you might be directed to a fish and chips shop.
In Spain once we were taken to a "very good restaurant" by friends, they only failed to tell us that the speciality of the place was snails! It was one of my longest meals, slowly soaking my bread in the snails' sauce -which was very tasty- to keep my mouth filled and avoid my friend giving me another one of her snails fished out of the shell with a toothpick. Certainly not an experience for the faint hearted.
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A Warning On Ordering In A Foreign Country
When ordering in a foreign country always ask if you are not sure. Most of the time the waiter will be happy to explain to you what the dish is and what are the main ingredients. You do not want to go to Spain and ask for Criadillas de cordero en pan frito.... Well, maybe you do, after all they are very delicious, but you should know that you are asking for lamb's testicles on toast!
Village Restaurants In Italy and France
Bear in mind that in small towns in France and Italy there is not always a written menu. Usually these are small family owned restaurants where everybody in the village comes for lunch. The waiter just comes and asks you if you want to eat. If you say yes... the decision is taken for you; just sit back and wait with adventurous anticipation for your dishes to come, usually the deal includes starter, first dish and dessert plus wine, cheese and bread. So be sure you are hungry before you say yes.
At first I found this style of restaurant weird and intimidating, but experience has shown me that these are some of the best restaurants. They have no stars or fancy decorations but their food is seasonal, freshly picked from their own gardens, cheese made in the local farm and the wine done in the local cooperative. There is no a written menu because the menu of the day depends on the cook's mood, the maturity of the produce waiting to be picked, or in whether the fish was in mating mood or not -a fish in love is tastier, its flavour more delicate, so some cooks would refuse to cook a non-amorous fish!
Table Etiquette When Travelling With Children
In Spain and Italy:
Thankfully, for most parents who travel with young children, in Spain and Italy, no one seems to mind children howling through the meal, the Spanish and Italians just raise their voices accordingly to be heard over the little angel's voices.
In France, however, this is not the case. In France food is meant to be enjoyed and savoured slowly at each bite, so children are expected to sit at the table during the two hours meal, eat what is put in front of them -most of the time the same as adults- use correctly all their cutlery and glasses and even take part in the conversation. No howling, no screaming, no chicken nuggets and chips washed down with Coca-Cola.
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