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You just arrived hungry in a new city and are in a desperate need of finding a good place to eat. And you need to do it without a guidebook or recommendation. There is one restaurant popping after another and many others hidden around or in other districts. You can give out very little for a marvelous dinner, or spend 20 € for dry chips, burnt chicken and rude staff (as I did in Paris). So the decision is very important, especially if you want to taste local dishes.

So what techniques one can use to assess a good restaurant on the spot?

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If you happen to be in Finland (and have a smartphone), the absolute best way is to check reviews on eat.fi — either the website or mobile app (free; shows nearby places with GPS). Unfortunately this app isn't available in other countries. (Yes, there's Urbanspoon etc, but those suck in comparison.) –  Jonik Jun 15 '12 at 14:07
    
Ask Just Dial or check out its reviews on various websites easily accessible from cell phones these days. Otherwise do what I always do: order/try some light (less in quantity) and familiar dish at random. –  Harsh Purwar Jun 15 '12 at 17:13
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4 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted
  • Is it busy? That's generally a positive sign.
  • Do the customers look like locals? Also a good sign, means they know of others but are still willing to come here.
  • What does the crowd look like? You can use their clothes, manner etc to hazard a guess at their background and what they may be willing to spend on - and use that to compare with what you want.
  • Is there a price board out front with 'discounts for tourists' or some nonsense? Likely mass-produced for the tourist market - not necessarily bad, but it's not likely to be a local meal.
  • Is it on the main tourist street? Go one block off there, you've got a better chance of value for money.
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I would add from my own experience that you should always look at other's people dishes. –  mithy Jun 22 '12 at 12:43
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There is no scientific way of knowing what you want. I mean you need to know on the spot without reading a guide or asking people. You need to be God to know that.. which you can't!

Any way there is a simple formula to spot a good restaurant with nice staff.. its too simple and it works most of the time: The more customers the restaurant has, The better it is. Just pick the crowded restaurant with the long queue.. Follow this and most likely you will not have burnt chicken or rude staff.

Regarding the price, Most of the restaurants leave a copy of the menu by the entrance just check it and you will know.

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Some shops play with long queue=best, like Starbucks. –  mouviciel Jun 15 '12 at 13:44
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There are many reasons why a restaurant can be crowded— it could be convenient to the metro station or the theatre, it could be frequented by celebrities, it could have a crazy drink special to move its subpar food. I do not think crowding is a reliable proxy. –  choster Jun 15 '12 at 19:18
    
@choster well, you are right thats why I sad most likely. But in general seeing a crowded restaurant next to empty restaurants is a good sign! –  user1712 Jun 15 '12 at 19:30
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Generally, I tend to find checking reviews on websites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor can be somewhat reliable, especially if there are many reviews for a place, increasingly the statistical likelihood of the score meaning something. Of course, you need some kind of smartphone to do that on the spot.

Another good approach, especially if you are staying in a fancy hotel, is to ask the concierge (although you do normally need to do this before leaving the hotel, admittedly). It's their job to know the city, and their tip depends on the result. They should be able to find you somewhere "not touristy" if you want, and can often even get you a table and a restaurant that's otherwise booked out.

At the other end of the scale, there are some red flags that suggest you might want to avoid a restaurant (of course there are always exceptions to these rules, so they aren't hard and fast):

  • Menus in English (if that's not the local language, of course) - they are likely catering to tourists, which can be a sign of overpriced and underquality food.
  • Restaurants in hotels, especially mid-range or cheap hotels - some five-star or fancy hotels might have good restaurants, but even if the food is good, it will typically be overpriced due to the captive market. Often better to get outside your hotel.
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Judging a book by its cover is always fraught with missed opportunities and wasted time, but if you are interested in good food at a good price— not necessarily the best food, or the most authentic, in the best setting, or with the best company, or delivered with the best service— there are some rules I think you can follow. Some of these will be a departure from the other answers offered.

  • A crowded restaurant is not always a good sign! As Andrew Ferrier noted previously, a restaurant in a great location is a restaurant that doesn't need to try to attract customers. If it's on a trendy street, offers a great view, or is super-convenient to a famous site, you're likely to have overpriced food to cover the overpriced rent.

  • On much the same note, a place in a guidebook has a steady stream of visitors, and by the time the guide is published has had a chance to get lazy on account of it. I steer well clear of any place with a "Lonely Planet-recommended" sign in the window. They're a good place to meet other travelers (who blindly follow Lonely Planet recommendations), but bad for crowding and prices.

  • Observe the clientele and facilities. A restaurant full of "beautiful people" may well be a place to see and be seen— not to eat. As economist Tyler Cowen has pointed out, if an establishment is making most of its money from men buying drinks for pretty women, food is of little concern; the women don't eat and the men will pay for anything. If it's a restaurant frequented by the "rich and powerful," the menu is designed to soak expense accounts, not to please the palate. Luxurious fixtures mean money that could have gone to a higher-priced chef or supplier has gone to a tablecloth manufacturer or silversmith instead. The food will be overpriced what what you get in quantity or quality.

  • Similarly, the lower the focus on alcohol (which is always heavily marked up), the better the food needs to be. Tyler Cowen claims that the average Pakistani restaurant in northern Virginia will be better than the average Indian restaurant for this reason. I don't know if I buy that, but certainly a meal at a restaurant that also serves alcohol will be better than one at a bar that also serves food.

  • Any place offering tourist specials and any branch of national chain restaurant is serving the lowest common denominator.

  • Pay attention to ingredients. In places like the U.S., where food is often shipped over long distances and heavily processed, the simpler the ingredients the better. Elsewhere, local ingredients you see in the market are likely to have better quality and selection— the fish in Zanzibar will be more reliable than the turkey. I often eat street food when abroad, because I can see the conditions in which the ingredients are stored and the food prepared, and it's made fresh in front of me, as opposed to some mystery meat pie from a faceless hotel kitchen.

  • Review sites such as Yelp can be helpful in big cities where you have a good sampling of opinions over a good amount of time. That means, however, that those sites aren't much help off the beaten path. A single review from someone who ordered a single dish on a single night at a restaurant a year ago is not reliable.

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Not so sure about the thing about luxurious fixtures and high-priced chefs. Usually top class restaurants have both, e.g. the Michelin guide considers interior design and table decorum in awarding its stars. Of course, a Michelin three-star restaurant will also be super-expensive and not necessarily what you are looking for but they typically do spend a lot of money on ingredients, so it's not really a trade-off. –  Annoyed May 8 '13 at 22:47
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