New City, Great Grub: Tracking down the best eats in a strange place

Ronda, Spain

Ronda, Spain

Having good “restaurant radar” is a wonderful thing for anyone who loves to travel and eat—it means that you can parachute into just about any new city and dine well. As a professional food writer, I’ve spent years honing my ability to guess my way into a great meal. You can leverage the same sort of approach when you travel, too—it’s just a matter of finding and prioritizing the right bits of data.

1. Follow the Crowds

The best place that my wife and I ate while staying in Ronda, Spain, was a humble little tapas bar. It wasn’t listed in our guidebook; it wasn’t referenced online. But it was thronged with people at 9pm, and we ate two delicious meals (plus several glasses of wine) for a total of 9 euros (about $12 at the time). Let the ebb and flow of local people inform your decisions—not every crowded restaurant is good (particularly if it’s a well-marketed spot choked with tourists), but a place with a lively clientele is usually a place with something reliable to offer its guests.

2. Have a Real Conversation

Talking with a barista at a good coffee shop, or to a cheesemonger at a nicely run grocery store, or any person parallel to the world of restaurants and bars can be a great source of tips. There’s an important caveat, though: You generally can’t just say, “Hey, I’m new in town, where should I eat?”

The conversation you want to have is: “Where do you like to eat?” This is harder to do than it might seem; out of mostly good motives, people you meet will likely assume you’re looking for a safe, cookie-cutter experience as opposed to something more challenging / real / legitimately tasty, and you’ll need to convince them that you’re willing to take a risk, try something new, and get out into the mix. Make that clear, push them for specifics (“What should I order? Is this the best place serving this thing?”) and locals can unlock the doors to culinary excellence.

3. Read the “Best of” Articles

There’s usually at least a loose critical consensus in most communities about the “10 best” (or however many best) restaurants that exist locally. If you read the local magazines and papers and skim a few of their annual best-of guides, you’ll quickly get acquainted with what people consider their communities’ gems. They’ll skew toward expensive and overproduced places and miss a lot of the real gems (smaller first-generation places, breakfast spots, independent coffee shops, and so forth), but they’re good starting places—particularly since many of these lists include enough specifics about things like chefs, dishes, ingredients, atmosphere, and more to really inform your choices. Don’t take these lists as gospel, but don’t ignore them—they represent some legitimate critical insight from people who live in the area.

4. Ignore Crowdsourced “Data”

Ten years ago, sites that collected massive numbers of reviews from their own users could be used as a semi-reliable way to locate and verify good restaurants. Now, however, owners have been painfully aware of these sites and their impact on business for years, meaning (in my experience) that reviews for just about every spot in existence—including small, independent joints that haven’t even opened yet—are stuffed with realistic-looking positive feedback from shills and friends and family members. Or worse, good places are poisoned by competitors’ spiteful notices or buried by algorithms. 

5. Study the Menu and Website

You’re looking for a sense of pride here—in craftsmanship, in ingredients, in special dishes. A connection to local farms, fishmongers, orchards, and so forth. A small but curated wine, beer, and spirits list that feels thoughtful. Many times (particularly with first-generation spots) a crappy website (often just a Facebook page) is actually a good sign—it means that time and energy is going into the food, not the marketing. Look for a menu that sparks real excitement and feels like it was made by human beings, and more often than not you’ll eat well.