Eating good food abroad is not something that happens by accident. Not too long ago on a trip to Cyprus I ate a grilled halloumi cheese sandwich on pita that was so dry it repeatedly stuck to the roof of my mouth. Twenty years on, I still remember the bland burger I ate in New York on my hurried way to the airport, before I was a local (and before I was a vegetarian); how disappointed I was that a place naive ole' me thought looked authentic served such underwhelming food. Many times I have fallen for the overpriced bakery listed on every must-visit list....from five years ago, the soggy falafel, the burnt toast. On the other hand, even years later I remember memorable meals-- that hidden hole-in-the-wall Parisian gem where I found revelation in the form of cheese on bread, or tagliatelle in a mushroom and cream sauce at a local family-owned spot in Lucca, Italy, on my first night arriving.
I first turn to Yelp and Trip Advisor as my resources for finding good food, but Yelp doesn't offer listings in every destination, and TripAdvisor skews towards the tourist point of view. When you want to find a great meal, or the top restaurants where you're visiting, or when you just want to explore the eating there is to do in the world, check out the tips below for the kind of comprehensive research I do when I want to thoroughly and fully prepare for eating on a trip.
Here then are my 7 top tips for finding the best places to eat abroad!
1. Ask a local. You can do this even if you don't personally know any locals at your destination. For example, TripAdvisor forums let you ask all kinds of questions of fellow travelers, and you will find that there are often "experts" who frequently weigh in on the conversations. If you like their recommendations, send them a polite message with questions, or ask them on the forum. Another resource for local recommendations are apps that feature curated guides based on the advice of locals. My favorite in this space is Like a Local. Cool Cousin has a smaller selection currently but the neat thing about it is that its locals each have their own travel guides you can download, complete with maps. Facebook groups like Girls Love Travel and others niche travel Facebook groups are also great resources often from locals. Post a question and see what recommendations you get.
2. Apps for apps (and mains). Most of us know about TripAdvisor and Yelp, but which app works best where? When you plan travel to a destination, download the food apps that the locals use. Often, you'll find more accurate suggestions, especially if you're looking to eat where the locals eat. If it's a local app or one you haven't used before, familiarize yourself with it before using it, to get a sense for how accurate and useful the reviews are. Do most restaurants have a good number of reviews (at least 50), and is there a range of restaurants at every star level? You want to make sure this is an app that has a large (and opinionated) user base. Skim through some of the reviews: are they mostly written by locals or visitors? This will give you a sense of the app's audience, so you can decide if you want to eat like that audience. Or watch out for my list the best apps and blogs for eating abroad, by continent, coming soon!
3. Bloggers! Bloggers are a wonderful resource to find recommendations on places to eat. I would split bloggers into three types: (1) bloggers that are based out of a certain destination (and therefore are experts on the that destination), (2) bloggers that specialize in food blogging, and and are experts in the field of eating, and (3) all other travel bloggers who have written the occasional restaurant recommendation, based on their adventurous spirit and love of travel. All three are good bets.
4. Old-Fashioned restaurant guides. I'm looking at you, Michelin and Zagat. Though not user-generated, these reviews by experts are comprehensive and generally trustworthy (but don't use this one without tip 7!)
5. Food news websites. Similar to blogs, but less personalized and with bigger teams and a magazine aesthetic, food websites can be a great resource. And don't limit yourself to sites from your country. A simple search can turn up sites around the world and especially in big cities. I personally love Eater. If you've never checked out their city heat maps, you're missing out. Other notable food news websites are Chowhound, Grub Street.
6. It's the destination, not the journey. Keep in mind that some destinations are more food-focused, so you'll obviously have better luck finding good food in New York, for example, than Cuba (which has a few good restaurants, but is not food-focused in quite the same way). Some places, if you're lucky enough to travel that remotely, you'll really have to ask a local when you get there. Others, you'll find tons of apps with tons of recommendations. When all else fails, remember that sometimes the food is not all that great where you are, and that's ok.
7. Cross-reference and put it all together. Don't rely on only one source! Cross-referencing is key, especially in places with few reviews. Though time-intensive, it's often essential when one or two sources or just not enough, or when you really want the best. Once you've found a a few of great food choices, take the top couple of restaurants that really appeal to you and cross-reference them with tools other than where you found them. This is especially important when there aren't too many reviews of the restaurant or if you found the review on a site where most of the reviewers are not by locals, or on a blog, where the opinion might just be one person's.
You can use these techniques before you go, in the trip-planning stages, or ad-hoc as you're traveling. Mix and match, try your luck, and after you're done finding out some of the best restaurants sit down, relax, and eat. You've done enough research to earn it.