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When travelling almost everyone wants to enjoy a local meal. It's part of the travelling experience. If you're not careful you may end up in an expensive, "extremely" tourist oriented place, which may not even represent the local gastronomy.

How do you pick a restaurant? Where do you search for information before travelling? are there any good on-line guides?

on the spot what are the dos and don'ts? do you ask locals? is that a good source?

Note: The problem with locals is that sometimes they try to be extra nice with you and will send you exactly to places you want to avoid. They don't eat in those places but it's common that they think it's a nice place for you since it's always full of tourists :)

One of the problems with most review websites is when restaurants go into a positive spiral. They get attention for some reason. From there, they will atract more visitors due to their position and, of course, those visitor will review them again re-inforcing the spiral. That means one may be losing other, maybe even more interesting possibilities, if only looking at "tops"

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Related: How to assess whether a restaurant is good on the spot? –  user1712 Feb 14 '13 at 13:04
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your comment about the "positive spiral" is very valid. Some restaurants in Japan were complaining that they received a Michelin star, because they were then overwhelmed by customers to the point where they could not provide the same level of quality and service –  EdmundYeung99 Feb 18 '13 at 3:53
    
That's a perverse effect that I didn't even mention. A good restaurant (with all the subjectivity that this implies) can be ruined by being overwhelmed with customers. –  nsn Feb 18 '13 at 12:42
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14 Answers

up vote 26 down vote accepted
+700

There are some strategies that you can use:

  • Prepare: Check websites like Tripadvisor or Yelp before you go there. If you really want to plan, write down the restaurants you want to visit. Based on the ratings and comments there, you should be able to judge if it is an authentic restaurant with a good service.

  • Don't stick to the main street: Very often, tourist places attract tourist restaurants. So to get a more authentic experience, go to the areas where not a lot of tourists go. Sometimes it is enough to just go one block off the main street and you will find no tourists.

  • Avoid obvious tourist traps: There are some hints that can tell you immediately if the restaurant is a tourist trap. As user1187008 pointed out for example, one should avoid restaurants with a big illustrated menu in English (especially, if English is not the local language)

  • Observe the locals: Check out where the locals go to eat. They know best what restaurants are good.

  • Use the internet: Try to find local blogs which emphasize of food. For every major city, you will find such food/restaurant blogs.

  • Be spontaneous: Tripadvisor and other websites have apps for smartphones that allow you to check the restaurants in the surroundings of your current location.

  • Ask a friend: As Rory Alsop pointed out, it is always a good idea to ask a local friend for advice if you know anybody at the destination.

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On the "prepare" part: I usually avoid the places with the highest number of positive reviews, more often than not they will be crowded, prices will be inflated, and the overall experience would be worse than sticking to some less-known places. –  mindcorrosive Feb 14 '13 at 9:49
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Yes, I like to go to places that have only a few reviews, but all of them very good. –  RoflcoptrException Feb 14 '13 at 9:50
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@mindcorrosive, I don't agree that much with avoiding the places with the highest number of positive reviews. Usually they really are the best choice and you can always book a table in advance. For what concerns the restaurants here in Italy I would add this rule of thumb: try to avoid the restaurants with a big illustrated menu translated in english outside the door, they are usually tourist traps. –  shard Feb 14 '13 at 9:54
    
That's also a great hint, I will add it to the answer. –  RoflcoptrException Feb 14 '13 at 10:02
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I would also ask one of my contacts who lives locally - this practice has brought me to some restaurants I would never have found otherwise. –  Rory Alsop Feb 14 '13 at 10:23
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I always consult Happycow. This is a website for vegetarian, vegan, and vegetarian-friendly restaurants. A good side-effect is that I end up at some very unusual and non-touristic places, and that the number of options reduced from hundreds to a handful or a few dozen at most. Perhaps you don't always want to eat vegetarian, but even as a non-vegetarian you can eat vegetarian occasionally.

In November 2012 I passed through Warsaw and had lunch at the highly unlikely Surya restaurant. As I was looking for the restaurant I was convinced that I had the address wrong, because I completely left the old centre and found myself walking through a residential neighbourhood with high concrete flats and no stores or restaurants at all.

Surya, Warsaw
Surya Restaurant, Warsaw. A unique experience with no tourists.

I was there at a quite unusual time (15:30-ish), so it was quite empty inside, but considering the surroundings, the inside was quite a surprise:

Surya, Warsaw
Surya Restaurant inside.

There is no way I would have found a place like this simply by strolling around. I wouldn't eat there every day (vegan raw food is a bit extreme), but as an occasional experience, even non-vegetarians may find themselves in quite unusual places off the beaten track.

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Just some days ago, I was on the streets in Spain with a friend, and she decided to ask a policeman for a place to have lunch. The restaurant he recommended was indeed popular with policemen. There were several daily menus on offer, at low price, and food was a plenty - I could not finish the desert.

Concerning asking locals: Sometimes I ask several, and it may be a good idea to say something like: I'm on a budget, cannot pay much. Then look at the food being served, at the people in the restaurant, at the menu, and all that usual stuff.

Also, it depends what food is common in the region. If you are close to the sea, for example, then it is likely that fish is good and cheap, sometimes even in tourist places.

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Local food groups

Like I mentioned in my answer on how to become a better tourist guide in your home city / country, one of the best ways of discovering of discovering the best local (and usually cheap) places to eat is to find out about the local food-lovers groups in the city. Some of these run scheduled, professionally organised walking food trips (like the one in Bangkok); most have some sort of food guide / blog to the city (search Google for "X food blog" or "X food lovers" where X is a city. These food guides are sometimes even available in printed form (for example, this guide on Istanbul food) and quite often they mention little-known gems that don't "look" popular.

Apps / Websites

I have mixed feelings about apps (such as Foursquare) and sites such as TripAdvisor / Yelp. I have sometimes had good recommendations through these on what's a good place to eat or what's "popular" but over time what I've found is that these tend to skew towards places that are popular among just tourists as opposed to where the locals eat. (And more often than not, "popular" on user-contributed sites tend to mirror Lonely Planet recommendations just because it's a most popular guide out there.) I've often been disappointed to find a place that had superlative reviews on user-contributed sites, because there is simply no way of knowing whether the reviewer can tell their schweinshaxe from their tabbouleh.

Food recommendations is one aspect in which think Wikivoyage / Wikitravel are massive failures. They may give you a very good general description of the dishes you can find in a country / region, but they are very bad at curating the best places to eat and presenting to it in a visually-useful manner. (Simply a classifieds-type listing without map information is very hard to turn into usable information while actually out and about in a city.) Moreover, I've found the 'reviews' or descriptions stray towards staying as neutral as they can, which is great for say monuments but not that much for something so obviously dependent on subjective judgement such as food.

Guidebooks

Top tip: when you buy a guidebook from Lonely Planet / Rough Guides / Frommer's etc, flip to the section on author profiles and find out how long they have lived in the country. I'm not saying it's impossible for someone who's spent less time in a country to make good recommendations (depends on what local sources they tap) but my general observation has been that if it was an author sent to the country just for a few weeks to cover a particular section for their country, their recommendations are usually tepid. Look out for authors who have spent serious time in the country / region (say, at least a quarter of a year or more) and trust their recommendations more. Many guidebooks these days have multiple authors based on the region of the country, so you shouldn't (dis)trust the book as a whole; just the bit that author themselves reviewed.

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I think this answer, like alx9r's but to a lesser extent, is somewhat describing how to choose a "good" restaurant, rather than one that's typical of where locals eat. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 15 '13 at 3:48
    
have the same feeling about wikitravel and restaurant tips. not so good. –  greg121 Mar 7 '13 at 10:56
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If I'm totally lacking in knowledge on the area, I tell the concierge (or staff) at the hotel I'm staying that I'd like to find a restaurant which offers local foods in this amount of budget.

If he/she recommends the restaurant in the hotel itself (possibly not the right choice..), I ask again, to tell me the restaurant they go to frequently.

This works most of the time. The only time it didn't work was, when I was visiting Malaga Spain, since we can't speak Spanish. Fortunately, the restaurant we visited was good every time. This scheme didn't work well in UK either ;p.

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Very good tip for business travellers. Perhaps not so much for backpackers (hostel staff can be very hit and miss on recommendations). Still, +1 since this is a Q&A site for every kind of traveller. :) –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 15 '13 at 0:04
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An option sugested by a friend is asking in Couch Surfing forums. This is a very good place since the persons there are usually locals or live on the place for some time. They usually enjoy travelling also. To wrap this up, they have local knowledge and will probably understand what you're looking for.

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More and more, I actually go *un*prepared. This lack of preconceived notion results in an experience that's much more unique. Sure, you will not always end up at the 'best' place, but, clearly, that's not what you are (or I am) looking for. For that, there's a whole slew of apps and guidebooks.

And, it's easy to avoid the tourist traps and overly popular places. Use side- and backstreets. Follow someone who looks like he's going out for dinner. Walk for a few minutes in a random direction. Think about what you want to eat and then look for something completely different.

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+1 for bringing-in radically different notion –  kmonsoor Feb 18 '13 at 8:25
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Some Neighborhoods Serve Good Food, Others Not

I find that the standard for what counts as good food varies dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood. The result is that a cheap greasy burger joint might be considered the panacea for all hunger in some areas, while in other areas almost every restaurant has well prepared dishes made from fresh ingredients and there is no fast food.

I often use this principle to first decide what neighborhood to patronize, then pick a specific restaurant by whatever other means available. Often, a few tens of miles of difference in geography completely changes the general quality of food.

Telltails of Which Kind of Neighborhood You're In

Bad:

  • there are fast food restaurants present.
  • ...or worse, there are lineups at the fried chicken drive thru
  • the only grocery stores are Walmart and Costco
  • Yelp reviews for restaurants are dominated by aspects other than the food itself (price, view, speed, convenience, serving staff)
  • the area is frequented by passers by who might never return (e.g. tourist traps, shopping districts)
  • people don't live in the neighborhood

Good:

  • there are butchers, bakeries, and farmers markets
  • there are gyms and yoga studios and you actually see people using them
  • residents walk to the restaurants, grocery stores, and coffee shops
  • the hipster coffee shop is at least as busy as the starbucks beside it
  • homes have food gardens
  • the neighborhood has a lot of people living a bohemian lifestyle
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This answer is more describing how to choose a "good" restaurant, rather than a local and authentic restaurant. I don't think it's answering the question described. –  Andrew Grimm Feb 15 '13 at 3:45
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Not all fried chicken joints are bad. Bojangles is something to be tried at least once, and Prices chicken coop is "highly rated" in charlotte. –  monksy Feb 15 '13 at 3:52
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@AndrewGrimm The original question specifies neither "good" nor "local and authentic" as selection criteria. He asks "How do you choose a restaurant when traveling?". He does mention in passing the notion of "local gastronomy". However, even if the question was strictly about "local gastronomy", which it is not, I doubt you'd reach consensus defining such a subjective term. –  alx9r Feb 16 '13 at 3:18
    
although I agree with your notion that good and bad food varies from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, what you have listed as good and bad is very subjective. i.e. fast food is bad and fresh markets is good. I for one don't care for bohemian food. –  EdmundYeung99 Feb 18 '13 at 3:50
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@EdmundYeung99 I agree that different people will have different opinions about what 'good' and 'bad' food is. However, the question clearly asks "How do you choose a restaurant when traveling?" This is how I often choose restaurants when traveling. In other words, I have objectively answered how I choose a restaurant. –  alx9r Feb 18 '13 at 7:25
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Throughout Europe I've been using the Michelin guides to find restaurants. They have a rating for fanciness and awesomeness of food. I usually go to the restaurants with one fork, which means it has good food for a good price (it tells you the price in the guide).
There is an app as well you can download and find all the restaurants in your area.

I used the app a lot in Scotland where we found amazing fish restaurants which otherwise would have been hard to find. Michelin tries to get you away from the tourist hot-spots and into the windy road with a charming restaurant at its end.
(I don't work for Michelin, I just like what they do!)

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If you want to eat in a high quality restaurant where they serve good food (where ever this maybe in the world), but for sure in towns & villages of Europe, you abide by one golden rule:

Look for the restaurant which is near full to capacity of locals and avoid the restaurant which is virtually empty.

Even if it means queueing it will be worth the wait.

Simple as that.....

Edit:

Also avoid those restaurants where the menu is displayed in multiple languages (as these are geared towards tourists).

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You have a point, but it can dangerous also... this is a bit extreme but if everyone thinks like that you may end in the worse restaurant in town, just because that day it happened to have a customer first. I have actually had very good experiences in empty restaurants. Of course it's not very confortable to sit alone in a restaurant. –  nsn Mar 7 '13 at 11:44
    
@nsn I'm not saying empty restaurants aren't good, but locals will know where to eat & generally those restaurants will fill up far quicker (this is my experience in Europe anyway) –  Simon Mar 7 '13 at 11:47
    
Full with locals is always good. Full with tourists might be bad - they could have come on a tour bus. But for ethnic restaurants the opposite may well be true. In a Chinatown in a western country look for places full with Chinese etc. –  hippietrail Sep 19 '13 at 10:12
    
@hippietrail I absolutely agree. If you are ever in East London, this definitely one chinese restaurant to head for tripadvisor.co.uk/… –  Simon Sep 19 '13 at 10:23
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One practical solution is to find a bookshop and check various guidebooks there, not necessarily travel guides but also books intended for locals. Obviously, the bookshop would probably want you to buy the book instead so don't be too obnoxious.

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The only reliable way I found to eat out in local restaurants is when I was accompanied by local friends.

Sometimes, good local restaurants are outside the city and need some car driving. Sometimes they are on side and back streets. Sometimes this is just a cafeteria crowded only by locals or street food served in shops that are far less shiny than the neighbouring McDonald's.

But the best local eating experience I usually have is at friend's home.

When I receive foreign friends I always try to bring them to the local farmer's market so that we can cook local meals with local products.

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What worked for me many times is looking up the top choice in your guidebook. Find the restaurant, skip it and go next door. This of course is just some kind of heuristics.

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This can break down when the guidebooks find a hidden gem that then gets corrupted by the influx of tourists using the guidebook. Apart from this, owners, managers, chefs, and cooks can change or leave and this can make a huge difference. This too applies more to hidden gems than to well known or high end places trying to maintain a reputation. –  hippietrail Sep 19 '13 at 10:09
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Regarding online guide, I really like FoodSpotting which gives you a map of nearby dishes in restaurant. It has a quite good world coverage and they have an app.

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protected by mindcorrosive May 29 '13 at 7:39

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