When was the last time you said “I want to eat where the locals eat”? I’m venturing to say that the majority of travelers have said this one time or another, including myself. It’s logical…if we eat where those who reside in that town eat then we can assume we are getting a more authentic; less-touristy experience. Where this is partially true, I challenge you to ask yourself a couple things 1) are you prepared to accept that the locals might not eat as well as you imagined? 2) should you really be so disappointed in this globalized world when you hear your neighboring diners speaking English?
For the sake of argument, let’s focus on metropolitan cities (as it doesn’t hold up as well for rural areas). In a city like Paris, I’d generalize the following category of restaurants:
Tourist traps: These restaurants are pretty obvious to spot. Many are clustered one after the next in areas where the major tourist sites are located, they are often times not visually appealing and some even have solicitors loitering in the street harassing potential dining prospects to enter. Needless to say, these restaurants serve mass-industry, frozen then reheated fare. They stay in business because tired and hungry tourists flock to them out of convenience.
Bad restaurants: These ubiquitous places are either missing a talented chef, quality ingredients or both. When either of these components are missing, poor service and decor ensue. One leaves feeling they’ve been “had” as they usually have paid the same price they would have at a good restaurant.
Good restaurants: These restaurants offer cuisine that deserves its price. This doesn’t mean they are all casual venues but rather that one’s level of satisfaction is consistent with the bill. People return to these restaurants mostly confident in their consistency but when they have an off-day we tend to forgive them.
Great restaurants: These are the gems many foodies dedicate themselves to seeking out. Patrons walk away feeling satisfied on every level and hands down feel the cost was justified. They aren’t necessarily Michelin starred restaurants or expensive meals but can certainly be that as well.
If you desire to be a foodie on the road then you have your work cut out for yourself. Where at one time it might have been a safe assumption to place one’s dining expectations in the hands of the locals, in metropolitan cities, this level of trust can easily lead one astray. The restaurant industry has had a renaissance over the last couple decades with the glamorizing of the industry through cooking shows, YouTube instructional videos, online access to recipes and mainstreaming of advanced cooking contraptions to the home kitchen. As a result we have more foodies than ever before seeking meals that will not only satisfy but inspire them. And naturally, similar to the economy, the industry has become polarized leaving the food-focused travelers who often times prioritize spending money on food, to the locals who may or may not care that much about food. The fact of being a local resident becomes irrelevant and the question becomes whether or not you share the same hobby. In Paris you’ll find that most restaurants, even the bad, are packed full on Friday and Saturday evenings resulting in a false-positive appearance on the actually quality of the place. Many Parisians prefer to get out of their small flats to socialize with their friends. The primary objective becomes finding a venue that will accommodate everyone as opposed to, solely, the food aspect.
It has taken me time to really accept it but this year of travel has solidified my belief. If you don’t have time to waste having bad meal on a one week trip to Paris, Tokyo, Venice etc then it is worth listening to other traveling foodies who can’t help but provide their feedback online. We should be grateful that there are so many tools to help us not bummed that there is nothing left to discover on our own! Top dining requires online research, cross referencing and reservations. And although I’m not a general proponent of TripAdvisor I do find it a useful tool to cross-reference blog advice in cosmopolitan cities.
As we are spending a month and a half in Paris, we have time to take a few risks and we do. I research a ton but I also leave meals to chance or recommendations. Whereas 10 years ago I would cringe at hearing English around me, I am now reassured that I’m amongst other food-centric travelers who share my hobby and have done their research.