BOGOTA, Colombia- When traveling you eat in a lot of new restaurants. You generally have no idea about any of these eateries before committing to a meal other than what you can ascertain from your own, lightning quick inspection. In point, you generally don’t know about a restaurant’s reputation, you don’t know if their food is good, you don’t hear the rumors that the cook is a bloated greasy slob who doesn’t wash his hands, and you are not going to hear the story about how someone’s aunt Marge found a pube in her pancakes. Unless relying on the circumstantial reviews of guidebooks, other travelers, or the advice of a hotel receptionist there is no way to know which restaurants are good and which ones should be avoided short of checking out a place for yourself.
So how do you find a good restaurant?
There are four things that I look for in a restaurant:
- Good, nutritious, simple food- Restaurant food is a big part of most traveler’s diet, so I want food that makes me feel good when I eat it. I want a meal with protein, starch, vegetables, and, if possible, fruit. I don’t care at all about sampling “local” cuisine — which is often, ironically, only served to tourists — as my main intention is to fill my gut. Like so, I look meals that have some combination of chicken, meat, eggs, rice, bread, with cooked veggies and maybe a side of fruit.
- Big portions- I want to be filled up and not still be hungry upon completing a meal.
- Cleanliness- I don’t want to get sick from eating in a restaurant.
- Cheap price- I want to pay the lowest amount of money possible for all of this.
Very often, restaurants in many parts of the world will have set menus that include a complete meal for a price that is much lower than the sum of its parts. I look for these eateries first, as they are often the surest way to meet all of the above criteria.
How I find restaurants that gives me what I want
I often look for a well kept, humble little restaurant that is a part of town that sits between downtown and a nicer residential area. I often avoid the wealthy districts, as the costs are often more than what I want to spend; the fashionable districts, as I am not fashionable and don’t care about fancy food; and the tourist districts, as restaurants here are more prone to serve up a fancy package than true gastronomic substance.
In point, I look for restaurants which cater to working class locals who are not the poor of the poor but who are also not looking for upper or middle class delicacies. I’m looking for the people, who, like myself, want a good, big meal for a low price. In cities, I look for students; in smaller towns and villages, I look for families.
I do not look for other tourists, and a room full of my fellow gringos mowing through some chow is not an invitation to join them, but a warning sign to get away quick. Where possible, I avoid tourist restaurants at all costs. A restaurant’s clientele may be tourists, but a tourist is never clientele: they are here today and gone tomorrow, they are customers but not clients. So what’s the incentive to offer good service and food when the people eating it are never going to come back anyway?
The food joint is fully living up to Uyuni’s reputation: way overpriced, bad tasting food, unfriendly service. They didn’t even want to give us chilly sauce to add some flavor to the otherwise tasteless dishes. What can you expect from a restaurant called la casa de touriste? –Uyuni traveler review
This quote sums up my feelings towards tourist restaurants in full.
Once I find a suitable restaurant, this is what I look for in order of importance:
- Is the place full of other people at meal times or is it empty? If it is empty, I turn and run. A full restaurant is often a good restaurant. The locals are not going to eat en masse at a restaurant that’s over priced, where the food is disgusting, or one that previously gave one of their family members food poisoning. Though make sure you know when the big meal times are of the country you are in, as, in many places, ALL restaurants are deserted outside of these hours.
- Can I get the food I want for a good price? If there is not a set “menu of the day” (which is optimal) I scan the prices on the menu first, and, if they fall within the range of what I want to spend, I will look to see if there is any food I want to eat.
- How is the appearance of the place? Does it look clean? Can I easily get back into the kitchen to take a peak? A clean front of a restaurant does not guarantee a clean back, but a dirty, ill kept front is often an indication that the back looks the same. I try to check out not only the seating area, but the kitchen as well. Often there is a window that you can peer through or a doorway you can easily peak your head through and say hello to the cooks. I am just looking for a basic impression here, as I know that I am not going to be able to fully observe the food preparation methods unless I sit back there for a day watching the cooks. If I see meat laying around next to vegetables, dirty prep surfaces, a lack of cleaning supplies, or a filthy looking cook, I run.
- What is the disposition of the wait staff? This is often just a testament to how the restaurant is run rather than an indication of what the food is going to be like, but does the waiter or waitress seem like someone I want to spend the next 45 minutes of my life interacting with?
If I can answer yes to all four of these questions, I take a seat and order a meal. If the meal is good, I return. If the meals continue being good, I continue returning every day.
I am happy preparing two of my own meals per day, but for the third I want a full on, warm meal — for this, I often must go to a restaurant. Finding a good restaurant in each place I travel through is part of the work of the profession, and after I’ve completed this objective more time and space is opened up in my day to truly enjoy the place I’m in.