Ah restaurants! One of the intense joys, and most frightening aspects of extended travel in an unknown city is deciding where to eat. I’ve picked winners so good I was blown away – and losers so bad, I feared for my digestive system. But along my culinary journey into the unknown – I have learned some important lessons – which I happily share.
Lesson 1: Believe in the Impossible – I’m a budget traveler – which means I travel on under $50 a day – a seemingly impossible task actually. I’m definitely getting tired of reading how travel under $100 a day is impossible. Not true! I’ve done 8 big trips in the past 10 years – and trust me – budget travel is possible. You can try almost everything a country has to offer – aside from the seriously touristy junk – just by living more like locals – and less like accidental tourists. Just have faith.
Lesson 2: Grocery stores can be your Friends – Seriously – that’s where locals shop, right? And many grocery stores these days cater to locals who have no time to cook at home. Often you can score entire meals that just require a bit of re-heating – but are properly prepared, and come with friendly advice. In a grocery store in Thailand we happened on a clerk with time to spare – and she gleefully gave us a full guided taste tour of all the offerings! When she finished – we stuffed! Best Dinner, ever! Another advantage of grocery stores – price tags! So you know what things cost without having to bargain. That’s a lot easier on a poor language frustrated budget oriented foreigner. Yes you might get a bit better deal at the markets – but the advantage of knowing before you hit the cash that you’ve stayed on budget is a huge plus – particularly the first few days.
Lesson 3: NEVER eat in a restaurant with only tourists as guests. Consider – if all the restaurant is catering to are tourists – what does it say about their repeat clientele? If the locals are there – there must be a reason. My favorite places are filled with happy locals – I fondly remember a breakfast in Puerto Rico where the local police force were enjoying the Puerto Rico version of donuts and coffee. Hot food, quickly served, Delicious.
Lesson 4: Avoid Buffets like the Plague – I’ve never really understood Buffet eating. First off – I have a fairly tiny appetite – so I’ll never eat enough to make it worth the price. Second – who ever saw locals in a buffet? Even here in Montreal – I’m very picky about going to a buffet – and if I do – you can be sure it’s going to be amazing. Third – Hygene issues abound. People put their hands on the food – and then decide not to take it. Yuk. And they cough and sneeze and blow their noses right over what may become my dinner. Yuk again. Ordering from the kitchen doesn’t guarentee that hygene rules will be respected – but at least my food is only exposed to the kitchen staff and servers – and I can hope they have been well trained. Exceptions to this rule – I do like buffet breakfasts – particularly the ones included in my room rate. Why – because I love eating fruit and drinking unlimited cups of coffee!
Lesson 5: Never eat in an empty Restaurant. I mean – why would you want to go where no one else has gone. What does that say about food turn-over? Unless the kitchen is making the food literally to order – an empty restuarant means that the food is sitting, cooling down, increasing in bateria count – waiting for someone to enter. Nope – not for me. I want a restaurant with a good crowd – at least partly locals – and a positive vibe. I’ve traveled with people who feel sorry for the hostess of an empty restaurant – but not my style – and hardly my recommendation.
Lesson 6: Avoid Hostess out on the street trolling for customers. Come on – be serious – why do you think they are out there? Because business is great? I don’t think so. They are out there because business is bad, and they think this will improve matters. But I don’t want to eat where business is bad – nor do you!
Lesson 7: Share the meal. In Europe, at lunch time, restuarants will often have a 3 course special. The Intrepid Traveller and I have discovered that there is enough food in one 3 course lunch to serve us both. Problem – not all restaurants are willing to serve one ‘lunch’ for two people. So – we ask. I’m actually amazed when the host says – “No Problem” – but it happens more often than not. Result – Delicious food and on budget!
Lesson 8: Don’t be afraid to ‘eat in’. A bottle of wine (2 Euros in most of Italy), Sausage, cheese, bread… You are feeding the soul when you eat like this – and it’s easy on both the budget and the feet.
Lesson 9: Walk Out if you must. Oh – this is so hard for us to do. We try not to be trapped in places we can’t afford – but it has happened. And the trick is to realize that you are in the wrong place, appologize and leave. Yes – it’s embarassing – but at least you are being honest. Be sure to look a bit ashamed – I always imagine the other diners are feeling a bit sorry for you.
So – enough advice about feeding the body – although I can’t resist just reminding my loyal readers that the best advice ever is just to be curious – be willing to take chances, and follow the locals. Budget travel doesn’t have to be cheap travel – and you can eat really well if you find the right places!
Signing off – The Soup Lady