Last week, when Bill and I were in Annecy, France, we were sitting in a very cool Irish pub. Bill said, “You really have a knack for finding unique places to eat when we travel.” He looked around at the dark, wooded bar, where the interesting music had me Shazaming more than once. It was like an oasis of calm, away from the crazy throngs of people buying produce at the market outside.
A large Kwak at a very cool Irish pub in Annecy, France.
It’s true. I am pretty good at finding restaurants. I don’t usually do a lot of research before I go looking for them, either. A lot of times, I just follow my nose and end up at a place that turns out to be somehow memorable. But then, I also tend to look for stories in places I visit. I observe people, listen to music and sounds, and yes, when it comes to food, I do actually follow my nose.
While we were enjoying our lunches, Bill said, “Maybe you should write a post about how to find interesting places to eat.”
Since it’s a rainy holiday and I’m sure my neighbors would prefer that I not make music (which is what I usually do when it rains), today’s post is about finding good places to eat when you travel. Some of the tips will be no brainers and/or obvious, but others might be a surprise. If anything, writing this keeps me out of trouble for awhile. So here goes.
Tip #1– Follow your nose.
I have already mentioned following your nose twice. Now I’m mentioning it again, because I think it’s very important. A lot of times, your nose can tell you if you’re going to like the food. Sometimes, it will lead you to places you never thought you’d be. For example, in May 2014, Bill and I took our third Space A hop to Germany to celebrate his impending retirement from the Army. We then took a train to the Champagne region of France, where we booked a hotel in Reims. We stayed two nights at an Ibis by the train station, which was selling my favorite bubbly in its lobby.
On our second night in Reims, we went looking for dinner. At lunchtime, we happened to pass by a non-descript building with its front door left open. A heavenly aroma wafted from the inside of the place. I made a note of where the restaurant was. Then, when it came time for dinner, I literally followed my nose inside the restaurant and soon found myself in what was once an old bomb shelter. It turned out it was a Belgian owned eatery called L’Alambic.
Although I didn’t review it on Trip Advisor, I see that other people had the same delightful experience Bill and I did. It really had a very interesting atmosphere. I probably would have passed right by it if I hadn’t taken a moment to smell the aromas emanating from the restaurant. So tip #1 is to take a moment to stop and smell the air… then, if you like what your nose tells you, follow it into the restaurant.
Tip #2– Avoid the main drags and restaurant rows.
This was a “main drag” restaurant that soon became very crowded and annoying. It was mediocre and expensive, although I did observe a man swiping Grand Marnier…
Although there are certainly exceptions to this rule, I’ve found that restaurants on main thoroughfares tend to be mediocre. They often capitalize on their convenient and visible locations to attract diners. Many people won’t necessarily have a problem with dining at these places on the main drags because they’re easy to find and convenient. A lot of times, the easiest restaurants to find also offer menus in many languages, which is also a sure sign that the food will likely be both overpriced and mediocre.
Of course, there are times when Bill and I give into the pressure and eat at a tourist hotspot. We usually regret it, though again, there are always exceptions.
So tip #2 is to consider looking away from the main drag for places to eat. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Tip #3- Mind the alcoves and alleys.
One of my favorite alley finds!
My next suggestion comes from a memory from Labor Day weekend, 2008. Bill and I visited Brussels, Belgium and enjoyed a splendid three days of drinking Belgian beers and eating frites. On a Sunday afternoon, we went looking for lunch. Brussels has a particularly obnoxious “restaurant row”, with barkers aggressively trying to lure diners in for their set menu deals. By Sunday, we’d learned to avoid the vortex of that street.
But then, I happened to look down an alley and noticed an interesting looking sign for what turned out to be an awesome pub. Upon walking through a small, but tranquil outdoor courtyard, we walked into a marionette theater. And then, we were in the theater’s amazing cafe, which offered an outstanding array of Belgian beers and was playing excellent music. It would have been very easy to miss Theatre Royal De Toone had I not been paying attention to the nooks and crannies that often get overlooked by tourists.
So tip #3 is to take a moment to explore alleys (as long as it’s safe) and alcoves. Sometimes, the best local haunts are located in obscure places.
Tip #4- If all else fails, consult OpenTable or a similar application.
Reiskorn in Stuttgart is one unique place I found on OpenTable.
I have found a number of good restaurants in different cities via OpenTable. You will find reviews there, which can help you determine if a place is worth a visit. It’s also easy to make a reservation, which is very handy if you don’t speak the local language. Granted, a lot of the restaurants that are on OpenTable aren’t necessarily local gems. I wouldn’t want to encourage people to rely on OpenTable or similar services to find places to eat. But it can be a good place to find interesting restaurants and a convenient means of scoring a table.
So tip #4 is to not be afraid to use reservation apps. Sometimes, they will direct you to some excellent places.
Tip #5- See the forest for the trees.
A most excellent Biergarten in Linz, Austria. We almost walked right by it.
In June 2008, Bill took me to Passau, Germany for my birthday. While we were on that trip, we took a day trip to Linz, Austria, which is one of the cities I stopped in during my month-long train tour after my Peace Corps assignment back in the summer of 1997. We wandered around the city, which I had remembered as very pretty, but kind of boring. Suddenly, as we were walking near the center, I noticed an area canopied with many trees. I looked to my right and noticed an excellent Biergarten where we spent a couple of fun hours watching business suit clad Austrian students getting loaded. I see on TripAdvisor that the Klosterhof gets mixed reviews, but we have good memories of our afternoon there.
So tip #5 is to explore the wooded areas. Sometimes, you’ll uncover hidden gems there.
Tip #6- Above all, observe!
Don’t look now, but there’s a famous monk over your shoulder…
I think this is actually the most important tip. Even if you land in a tourist trap, as we did last weekend, you will get a more interesting experience if you open your eyes and look around. Observe your surroundings. You might catch someone swiping Grand Marnier… or you could see a famous Buddhist monk who’s going around the world, spreading his message of world peace. I find that observing my surroundings and watching other people makes dining more fun. It definitely helps me form stories for my writing, which makes posts more engaging for my readers and for myself. As I have mentioned before, I mostly write these blogs for the time when we’re no longer traveling so much. I will want to remember and savor the memories… and the flavors.
So tip #6 is to open your eyes, your mind, and your other senses. You might come away from your meal with a good story to tell.
I probably could add to this list of tips… and I may one day write a sequel. For now, I’ll leave you with these few suggestions as I retreat to the futon to watch Little House on the Prairie.