Make your meals the real deal
Published 05/06/2010 | 05:00
Next time you venture abroad, be brave and dump the menu turistico . Nick Trend has tips for finding authentic local flavours on holiday.
Be wary of personal recommendations
... especially by hotel staff and reps. Some may have excellent instincts and come up with top-notch suggestions, but others may be receiving backhanders and some may misunderstand what you really want. Since you are a tourist, they might reason that you will want to eat where other tourists tend to eat.
Always look for locals
You know the give-away signs and they obviously depend on the destination -- in the Med, the men wear long trousers (not shorts), the ladies tend to dress up and very often the children are with them.
Find a restaurant that's fully booked...
and reserve a table for the following evening. That tactic won't work for your first night, in which case ...
Time things carefully
I find a restaurant that I like the look of and take a risk on it. If it's already full, find out what time locals usually eat (this can vary enormously from one culture to another: it might be 10pm or later in Spain, or 7pm in parts of the US) and time your foray an hour or so early.
Avoid anywhere that employs catchers
If you are accosted by a smiling, witty chap who shakes you by the hand as you read the menu, you know you are not only looking in the wrong window, you are probably in the wrong part of town.
Didn't notice it at first?
Another good sign is any restaurant that is hidden away, rather than heavily signed. It doesn't need to work hard to attract new custom because those in the know keep coming back.
Short, handwritten menu
This is a good sign. Long, badly typed menus with a row of national flags at the top and simultaneous translations of the dishes underneath are generally, in my experience, an extremely bad sign.
Analyse the menu
If the fresh produce featured on the menu is not in season, then you have reason to be wary. Asparagus, globe artichokes, sea trout and strawberry tarts in June are a good sign. The same menu in September is not. Any menu including burgers (except in the US), Wiener schnitzel (except in Germany or Austria), or chicken and chips should sound very loud alarm bells.
Analyse the wine list
These are not always put up in the window, of course, but you can ask to see one. A generous selection of wines by small local producers is normally an excellent sign. It means that the chef or the proprietor is probably buying direct and has an interest both in local produce and in how regional cuisine and regional wines work together.
Walk around the corner
The closer you are to a major sight or tourist honeypot, the more likely you are to be ripped off and served bland international cuisine. Check side streets and residential squares.
Doesn't take credit cards?
Probably a good sign, and probably means the restaurant is less focused on the tourist market.
A final thought
Eating out isn't just about the food, especially on holiday. Part of the pleasure of an evening in a Greek island harbour town is sitting at a quayside table and enjoying the life and the sights around you. You don't get quite the same views from a locals' taverna up a side street ..