Few can usually appreciate my giddiness when I obtain that hard-to-get reservation at a unique restaurant on my travels.
Others think I am silly to only nibble all day in anticipation of the "great meal" that I arranged ahead of time.
I think I have created an easy-to-follow set of rules that allow me to taste the best of what each town, city or country has to offer.
...and it leads me on a delicious adventure each and every time!
1. Make friends with your waiter!
Many travellers count on their ever-smiling concierge to steer them to the best restaurant, most popular café or special attraction. Some ask a native to the area who is sitting nearby at breakfast and others look to their travel agent to pre-select their activities for them.
When travelling overseas, many waiters in the bustling restaurants have been working in the industry (and in that town or City) for many years. They have chatted with tourists, locals and other foodservice workers over the years and know where to find the best value for local eats and drink.
Want to obtain that hard-to-get reservation at the trendy restaurant in town? Visit that same restaurant for a light lunch and talk to the waiter about how you can find a table to dine at that night. We have been lucky sometimes with having a light LATE lunch and sipping slowly on our wine until the evening shift starts and the staff are then more than happy to let us stick around for the dinner hour.
Want a tip on where the chefs eat after work? Ask your waiter. It may not be the most advertised place and it will most likely be off the main tourist path, but you can almost bet that the food will be authentic and amazing!
Want to visit a local winery? Chat with your waiter about HIS or HER favourite place and if they know anyone who works there that can you can call on when you arrive.
Personal introductions can open many more doors than you than just making a standard appointment or reservation.
Your waiter will also know which dishes to order on their menu, what to skip, what is THEIR favourite and even what the kitchen’s specialty is that may not even be on their standard tourist menu.
Let your waiter guide your way! He is excited to show you the best of his city and is happiest when visitors show interest and appreciation for their way of life.
2. Hotels and Casinos are always a safe bet!
When you are travelling to a new city or town and you haven’t pre-researched dining spots, you can often just ask around (or look online) for the recommendation for the best hotel. The in-house hotel restaurant rarely closes, offers standard fare at a decent value and the staff usually are multi-lingual to keep up with tourist demands.
If the town or city you are visiting has a popular casino, it too will have a bustling and popular dining spot (or many!) with discounts if you spend a little at the casino or if just a two-for-one special that can give your wallet a break.
3. Speaking of research…
I rarely book a holiday overseas without planning one or two key dining reservations in advance.
For every three days in a country, I usually book one specific restaurant, let a waiter or other chef point me to their favourite for another night and then leave the third night open to chance.
Keep in mind that some of the most popular restaurants only have a 30 or 60-day window that allow for reservations and some are only open on certain days so you may have to schedule around their opening times.
My go-to websites for research?
- michelin.com (for the Michelin-starred restaurants).
- foodandwine.com (for country-specific recommendations from the magazine’s experts on the best of food, wine and tourist spots
- tripadvisor.com (for the tourist favourites for smaller towns that don’t have the big reputations of the larger restaurant-heavy city.)
4. Eat OFF the menu!
As someone who is always having to come up with on-the-spot menu changes or trying out new twists on classic recipes, I get excited to feed someone who is willing to take a chance on whatever I put in front of them.
…and I am not the only one.
Close the menu and let your waiter know that you are willing to try whatever the chef is best known for or just ask for what the staff eats in between shifts.
Give them an idea of what budget you have, too, so you aren’t too surprised to receive a plate full of something covered in white truffle or fois gras.
5. Eat like (and when) the locals do!
In Spain, breakfast is not the traditional egg-and-bacon-heavy dish served at 9am. Their nights are longer and therefore, the morning usually only sees a coffee or two and perhaps a croissant to settle the empty stomach.
Eggs are not for breakfast in Spain either…it is more of an ingredient used in snacks, tapas and lunch offerings.
Our traditional dinner time in North America is much earlier than what the Spaniards are used to. Their 5pm to 7pm hours are mostly filled with stops in cafés and tapas bars for a quick glass of wine and a snack, a hug hello to an old friend and a few laughs with co-workers and neighbours.
To experience the country you are visiting in the most authentic way, watch the local cafés carefully to see who is eating what and when. Notice when the best restaurants open for the evening (in Spain it's usually 9pm or later) or what is open for business early in the day. Taking cues from the usual daily schedule will allow you to taste the best specials of the day, see the crowded laneways of noisy cafés and truly get an appreciation of what it is like to live there.
Your travels to another country should be to experience it fully. I encourage everyone I meet to try something new, taste a new version of a classic, trust someone else's recommendation and make little rules for yourself such as
"Don't eat anything I can easily order at home."
...in other words - no pizza! Unless you are in Italy...