Blog » Travel Dining 101
When my husband, Rob, and I moved to North Carolina, perched at the top of our to-do list was a trip to the coast. Coming from landlocked Utah, the closest ocean waves had been a 12-hour drive away in California. So when Rob had his first spring break in law school, we packed up our new puppy and headed to picture-perfect Nags Head. In March. We knew it wouldn’t be swimming weather, but had no idea that parkas and Wellies would be more appropriate than shorts and flip flops, and that virtually the entire town would be boarded up for the off-season. We spent our first night walking through Harris Teeter trying to choose a frozen pizza to heat up in our condo’s small kitchen — the ultimate foodie fail.
Fortunately, our dining improved after that night. With some luck and a little investigation, we stumbled upon some excellent dining options. I still talk about the goat cheese-stuffed black bean burger and lime-scallion quinoa salad I got at a takeout-only catering business we found nestled in a stripmall. And a gourmet grocer served some of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. In the end, we ended up making lemonade despite our out-of-season lemon of a trip.
Over the years I’ve gotten more adept finding great places to eat. Some are places are obvious food meccas — hello Peter Luger — while others take a little more sleuthing (thank you for the cupcakes, Two Little Red Hens). And sometimes, you just get lucky.
When you don’t want to rely on luck, here are some tips to help you have great dining experiences when traveling.
Do your research. Before I travel anywhere, I spend time on Chowhound.com, www.yelp.com and Urbanspoon.com. These websites allow foodies across the country to share restaurant recommendations for everything from taco trucks to five-star steakhouses. It may take some time, but you’ll start to notice that certain restaurants, coffee shops, and bakeries are mentioned again and again.
The last time we were in Seattle, everyone on Chowhound described a restaurant called Lark (pictured above) as fresh, local and affordable. While there, I was introduced to the wonders of buratta cheese, and the yellowtail ceviche and wagyu tartare still fill my dreams.
Don’t be dismayed if a seemingly great spot doesn’t have a website. In 2011, it can be off-putting if you can’t find a website for any company. However, some great restaurants prefer to spend their time on sourcing and creating great food instead of maintaining a website. If you can’t judge a restaurant by its website, you’ll have to trust others’ recommendations and decide whether or not to gamble on a restaurant without seeing a menu. And quite frankly, some of the best places I’ve eaten at don’t have a www.
Play up the locale. Take advantage of the food culture of wherever you are. If you’re spending a fall weekend in Asheville, search for the best vegetarian restaurant there, even if you’re not vegetarian. When in Rome...eat gelato. When in Philadelphia, you decide if Tony Luke's or Pat's serves the ultimate Philly Cheesesteak. When in Chicago, you’ve gotta have deep-dish pizza; trust me, it’s worth the calories. When in New York, you’ve gotta try the pastrami sandwiches at Katz's or Carnegie Deli. And when we have family in town, we take them to Little Richards or Prissy Polly’s Pig-Pickin’ BBQ; it would be a travesty to visit North Carolina and not experience pulled pork and hush puppies.
Utilize Twitter and Facebook. Both social media sites are great resources when traveling to a new place. You may be surprised who speaks up on Facebook when you ask for recommendations; you never knew Uncle Bill was such a foodie, did you? Most decent-sized cities will have a Twitter account run by passionate locals or a tourist board. But remember for Twitter to be most effective, you need to be an active user so you have followers to see your call for help.
Find local food blogs. Food bloggers are abundant now and usually very knowledgeable about the local dining scene. Many food bloggers are even invited by local restaurants to preview new menus.
HealthyLivingBlogs.com is a great resource; you can search by location to find bloggers in the area you are traveling (including some international bloggers). Don’t be turned away from the term “healthy” — most health bloggers, me included, love to splurge at a good restaurant. And it had better be good if we are going to splurge on gnocchi and tiramisu.
Watch TV. Celebrity chefs really can be trusted. We were big fans of Jose Garces when he competed on The Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef"; he actually won the season title and on a trip to Philadelphia last year we went to Amada, his flagship restaurant. The food was truly incredible. Research the competitors on "Top Chef" or "Iron Chef America" and see if they have a restaurant in the place you're headed. "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" is also a great show for getting trustworthy dining recommendations.
Find state-specific magazines. You’re already doing one thing right — you’re reading SavorNC. State (or even city) specific magazines are great resources because their focus is narrow and usually quite discerning since their reputation relies on providing good advice. Many offer dining guides, which you can find on the internet; New York Magazine publishes an annual “Where to Eat” guide that makes me want to book a one-way ticket to NYC. If you forget to do your research, head to a grocery store in town and look in the free magazine racks by the entrance. If that fails you, check the magazine section inside to see if you can find a publication that looks promising.
Ask the locals. Every city has foodies. I’ve learned that one of the best places to find foodies is in a small, local cafe or in an off-the-beaten path restaurant you discovered. During a recent trip to San Francisco, I used Yelp to find a breakfast cafe called Dottie’s True Blue Café.
I was by myself and seated at the bar next to a hippie-looking guy. I learned he was a regular at Dottie’s, and I immediately starting asking him for other restaurant recommendations. Thanks to my hippie friend, I was able to plan out the rest of my dining outings throughout the trip, including a quaint tea house, a bakery serving pastries to rival those in Paris, and an all locally-sourced cafe that impressed me so much that I ate there three days in a row.
Lastly, don’t eat at a chain. My husband and I have a “rule” that we don’t eat at restaurants that do commercials. If you are in New York City, head to Little Italy instead of the Olive Garden. You might not know exactly what you’re getting at the small Italian joint with broken-English servers, but you’ll know exactly what you’ll get from any chain. And it’s usually not worth blogging about.
One last tip: Wherever you decide to go, call ahead to make sure they are open, so you don’t have crestfallen faces like we did in Nags Head. Happy eating and happy traveling!
What are some of your tips for finding good spots to eat?