The World as Your Oyster
I OFTEN interrupt friends back from a trip as they recount just what they ate and where. "What did you see?" I ask defensively, assuming they're giving me only the culinary news because I write about food. But on they go, about the cloud-soft gnocchi they had north of Venice, or the beef braised in beer in Brussels, or the spring-lamb stew in County Cork -- all in restaurants they hadn't known about before leaving, whose discovery added mightily to their holiday pleasures. Food matters on trips, for the non-food-obsessed, too.
I'm very cautious, though, when someone planning a trip asks if I know any good restaurants. One person's exciting discovery is another's disaster. Even if I know the city or region well, I reply not with a list of names but with a series of questions. I like to help people decide what they're really after, and then think who can best direct them to it--the same thing I do while traveling. Yes, people who write about food make it their business to collect inside tips on whose chef bears watching, what landmarks have lost their luster, and which hole in the wall must not be missed. But those recommendations could be out of date, and even food critics--especially food critics--vary widely in their tastes. Serendipity plays a big part in any trip; here are a few ways I've learned to make your own serendipity.
BE specific. If you want typical food, don't just mention to a friend or a sympathetic stranger at your destination that you want local cuisine. Ask how many regions of the country are represented in the city's restaurants, and what the differences are between the various styles of cooking. While following the response you'll quickly sense which is the person's favorite, and which is likeliest to be yours.
With few exceptions the first restaurants you'll hear about when you ask for recommendations will be the fanciest and most famous. If you seek elegant dining with attentive service, or if you're entertaining on business, pay attention. If simplest is best and price counts, say so. Your informant will have to stop and think, and second-tier recommendations are usually of greater interest.
Do you want to see the people who really live in a place rather than other tourists, or do you want to try superior native cuisine? The desires can be incompatible. I often dine where people tell me fashionable and arty types go; I'm rewarded with good people-watching, but after many such evenings I wind up with too much smoke in my clothes, too much money charged to my credit card, and nothing more interesting to eat than smoked salmon and steak frites while I observe.
The problem with following the in crowd is that locals, especially those who eat out a lot, want a change from the food their town is known for. So many people in Stockholm, for instance, told me to go to Fredsgatan 12, a storefront bistro whose chef has built a reputation as one of the city's best, that I rearranged my itinerary to accept the only available reservation. The menu, handwritten in gold on black paper, told me I had come to the kind of restaurant that uses Asian fruits and Italian pasta and French sauce-making techniques. The result is a latter-day "Continental cuisine" (the catchall phrase for French-based food associated with cruise liners and hotel ballrooms), not at all specific to one small place--as, to my mind, the most interesting cooking is. The Boss-clad patrons were small consolation: I was just getting to know and like the traditional uses of herring, brown bread, lake-caught whitefish, and lingonberries, and I wanted the old but not the stodgy. After I reconfigured my questions, friends pointed me to Erik's Bakficka, a cheerful bistro in a central residential neighborhood where the menu was far less ambitious but recognizably Swedish (a cuisine that, it must be admitted, includes some stodge). Trendy places and landmark restaurants do show what the residents of a city are wearing and how they behave; but it's probably better to save them for a drink before or after dinner.
Naturally, you'll need to consider the source of a recommendation. There are two schools of thought about asking hotel concierges or front-desk clerks (the easiest and first choices, besides taxi drivers) where to eat. The cynical view is that concierges are paid to steer people to certain restaurants, and the rubes foolish enough to look to them deserve what they'll get--something packaged and moribund. That's naive. Part of a concierge's basic training is learning about a wide range of places to eat, including modest hangouts and ethnic places and new spots. If in Paris, for instance, you say you like fish and brasseries and wouldn't mind a change from haute cuisine, a concierge might know to send you to Flora Danica, on the Champs-Elysées, which Parisian friends tell me is the best Danish restaurant outside Denmark, and where, they say, the salmon grilled on one side is extraordinary.
A recommendation for a hotel restaurant needn't be dismissed out of hand. Hotels often invest large sums in showpiece restaurants that either just break even or lose money, and they become magnets not only for resourceless and unimaginative guests but for clever ones and locals, too. Several of the most sought-after restaurants in Paris, for instance, are in hotels. The young chef at Montparnasse 25, in one of the city's two Meridien hotels, is attracting much attention, and the selection of cheeses there is said to be the best in Paris. The very grand Plaza Athénée has an excellent new chef who combines classic dishes with nouvelle cuisine, which seems to be in the first stages of a revival. A consistently difficult reservation to get is a table at the Hôtel de Crillon.