4 Ways to Find the Perfect Restaurant While Traveling
There are two types of people; The ones that get hungry and walk into the first place they see and the ones who stop and research a place to eat. I have been with both types of people and I can say I much prefer the later rather than the former. When traveling I never eat better and always affordably. I have my go to places at home, but when traveling I'm forced to put my gastro-pallet out there.
Its very easy now to find a hole-in-the-wall or ma-n-pop restaurants that will serve delicious food for only a few bills. It is also easy to know which over priced restaurants are actually worth the price. It is not about knowing where to look but what to look for. Here are the tricks I learned to find the best places to eat while traveling.
Power in Numbers
Obviously we are going to use an app, but the trick is how to use the app correctly. I find people picking the closest 4 to 5 star restaurants, looking at pictures of the food, and being disappointed. Good start, but let’s change a few things.
There is power in numbers, and when I say numbers I mean number of reviews. Sometimes star rating doesn’t mean much for a small restaurant. The owner could have easily told all his/her friends and family to rate 5 stars which can encompass most of the reviews you see. Be skeptical of places with less than 20 reviews. A restaurant that with 4 star rating and 1000 reviews will most likely be leagues better than a restaurant with a perfect 5 star rating and 3 reviews. Those 1000 ratings are years of people sampling the food, interacting with the service, and judging the decor.
Statistically you are more likely to get to the “true” rating of a restaurant, or anything, If a large amount of people apply their honest input. It wouldn't be like me not to include why, and this is where The Parable of the Ox comes into play. A statistician by the name of Francis Galton in 1906 observed, during a competition at the country fair where patrons had to guess the weight of an ox, that the average of all the guesses came very close to the actual weight of the ox. This experiment was later reproduced by NPR in 2015 where they posted three pictures of a cow and asked the internet to guess, and again the average came very close to the actual weight. How I see this translating is if you get enough people to voice their true opinion the average of those voices will be closest to the true experience you will feel. Power in numbers.
Reading what people had to say about a location can also help immensely and can give context for why some rated 1 star. Someone who is having a bad day might be more inclined to under-rate a restaurant and this can usually be seen through the review. A review can also reveal what dishes are best, if a place truly is vegan or vegetarian friendly, parking situation, and any other small details. Skim through the reviews to get an idea of how the restaurant will be through the voices of many.
Be skeptical of one review and only pay attention to the repeating patterns. A waiter may have had a bad day and that one review may be based on that experience. IF you see repeated reviews about bad service you should expect bad service or at least a bad waiter.
But Which One
The app I use when traveling in Europe is TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor has the most restaurants and reviews out of any other travel app (besides google.com). The app is easy to use and lets you filter by price, distance, and if they are open.
If traveling in the United States Yelp, Zagat, or Google trips are excellent apps. Yelps morals have come into question as of recently, but it still holds a large database of restaurants and reviews. Zagat rated restaurants are gems, but because the name holds so much weight restaurants will raise prices after being reviewed. Think of Zagat like a Michelin star review but for the little guys. Either one you choose will be fine as long as there is enough people reviewing the restaurants at your destination.
Now, If you are traveling abroad and are not at a hotel or area with wifi, it will be hard to use an app without internet, but you are not out of luck. There are some tricks to finding a good place to eat. While these tricks are not perfect they will help you take a good guess at which establishment will be worth your time.
The first is to check the amount of people at the place during prime time. A large amount of people or people waiting outside for a table is usually a good sign of a good. A large restaurant with a small amount of people is a bad sign.
Outside seating can help to judge a restruant without going in. Look at the mood of the people seated. Are they frustrated? Do multiple people keep looking for their waiter? If the answer is yes for both than you can bet that the service, and possibly food, is not up to standard.
Besides just sitting down and having a good meal you want to make sure you will not get sick. The way a restaurant caters to the details of keeping the place clean and maintained will reveal how much they care about cleanliness. There are some tell-tale signs that one can look for to see if hygiene is a top priority of the establishment.
The first is a clean bathroom with all the toilets, urinals, hand driers, and faucets working. A restaurant that truly cares about their establishment would not let these items go without maintenance in the same way they wouldn't let food pass inspection. I once entered a restaurant where the bathroom, located right next to the kitchen, I assume it was for the cooks and waiters as well, had no working sinks, one of them was split in two. After buying my sealed bottled water I was out the door.
Other signs can be looking for dirt and grim in not so obvious places. Do the edges of your seats have dust and dirt? Does the ceiling look like someone shat on it? Are there dead bugs everywhere? If so, get out now. Its not worth having explosive diarrhea while walking around the well dressed pedestrians of Europe.
TripAdvisor has taken the liberty to provide awards to establishments that are above the rest. The establishments who win these awards get stickers which they can use to display their dominance among other places in the area.
One of TripAdvisors awards is the certificate of excellence that can help locate a good restaurant, but can also mislead a hungry traveler. This is an award offered by TripAdvisor for having a significant amount of positive reviews and other factors determined by their algorithm. Usually the certificate of excellence badge is a positive sign but this can sometimes not be the case. An award given back in 2008 might be more like a “certificate of we were once good”. Use these awards more like a guideline unless the award is very recent.
Other stickers I have seen are the “Featured” and “Hall of Fame” award. The Hall of Fame sticker is awarded to an establishment that received a certificate of excellence 5 years in a row. This is a clear sign of a good restaurant or hotel. The featured/reviewed on TripAdvisor does not mean much in terms of what level of quality you can expect. It is important to understand what type of sticker you are looking at rather than just look for a TripAdvisor sticker.
If you follow these tips you will be eating like a king at whatever price point you want no matter where you go in Europe or North America. Traveling should be pleasant from the start to the end and everything in between. A happy stomach translates into a happy trip.