A big part of my mission involves identifying restaurants that are worth recommending to Food GPS readers, based on as many as three meals in the field each day. In over seven years of professional eating, and more than 20 years of viewing the world like a dining table, I’ve learned lessons and spotted patterns. Here are 9 tips on how to maximize your meals.
KNOW YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Increase your odds at finding success by knowing the neighborhood. For instance, in Southern California, international strongholds like Thai Town, Little Saigon and Koreatown have the highest concentrations of their representative cuisines (and populations). Therefore, you’re most likely to receive a good meal in those areas. Is it possible to find good Korean food outside of Koreatown? Sure. Should you start your search in Koreatown? Yes.
AVOID TOURIST ZONES
In some twisted way, there probably is some value for first time visitors to New York City’s Times Square, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, or Miami’s South Beach, but it rarely has anything to do with food. Those areas have high rents, and to stand out, corporations and restaurateurs invest millions to create flash. Call it the sizzle factor. Call it showmanship. Just don’t call it cuisine. Of course there are exceptions, but you’re much more likely to find good food – particularly international cuisine – on the fringes, where rent’s cheaper and chefs can build reputations based solely on what they put on plates.
Despite what some professional food writers I know might claim, they don’t discover every restaurant they cover. Like me, they rely on trusted family members and friends, and learn about restaurants from other food writers. Given that nobody knows it all, be comfortable with asking advice from people who might know better. Some people have better handles on particular cuisines or neighborhoods, and don’t hesitate to lean on them for suggestions.
ASK FOR SUGGESTIONS
If you’re in an unfamiliar neighborhood, ask people you meet to suggest their three favorite restaurants. Ask enough people that question, and some establishments are bound to surface repeatedly. Also, if you were already planning to eat at certain places, tell people. Sometimes, strangers will emphatically recommend “better” alternatives, with supporting evidence. This recently worked out well for me in Atlanta, where a new coffeehouse connection directed me to a restaurant called One Eared Stag in nearby Inman Park, and even drove me to my meal.
CONSIDER THE SOURCE
Yes, anybody on the planet could potentially deliver a rewarding restaurant recommendation. A Food GPS commenter turned me on to a Sri Lankan restaurant near Disneyland that is no longer there. Of course, that closure is not Big T.’s fault. A fellow passenger on a flight from Atlanta to L.A. led me to a great Gujarati restaurant in the Inland Empire. However, these are the exceptions. Establish a filter by asking a lot of questions. Ask where they’re from, what they grew up eating, and what their current favorite restaurants are. If they mention chains or tourist traps, no need to follow their advice. If a person’s from New Orleans and knows a place better than Mother’s for po’ boys, you may be on the right track.
READ LOCAL PUBLICATIONS AND BLOGS
Generally, writers don’t hold back when it comes to sharing what they know, and even if you don’t know the writers personally, like I might, their best suggestions typically end up on printed pages or URLs. In large cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, this search could lead to a lot of information, but if you’re willing to invest some time in a virtual sifter, there are bound to be some good culinary finds.
LOOK AT PHOTOS
People post thousands of food photos every day online, and once you have a promising lead, it’s easy to plug that restaurant name, or even a dish name, into a Google Images search, and come up with at least one representative photo. It shouldn’t be hard to decide if a dish looks like something you’d like to eat. Look at photos that are on the establishment’s website, but be aware that these images often require a food stylist and won’t appear as pictured on your plate. That’s why blogs, websites, online newspapers, Instagram and even Yelp (gasp!) are all worth navigating for more representative dish images.
FOLLOW THE CHAIN
If you like a restaurant, coffeehouse, bakery or bar, ask the chef or owner if there’s anywhere else in the city that they’d recommend. First, make it clear that you’re a believer in their cause, and they’re less likely to see suggestions as competition…unless they’re arrogant assholes who won’t give credence to anybody else’s culinary efforts (which happens).
BE WILLING TO EAT A LOUSY MEAL
Despite all of this advice, there are still meals that won’t meet expectations. Yes, it would be fantastic if every meal was great, but the meals that aren’t great make the meals that are even more special. Also, if your lunch is lousy, there’s always an opportunity to experience a great dinner. If dinner’s second rate, breakfast could easily be top tier. Basically, there isn’t much risk involved in following a lead, so do it.