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 But those recommendations could be out of date, and even food critics--especially food critics--vary widely in their tastes.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.
In the United States a marketing strategy for hotel operators is to invite in an established restaurateur who will attract both visitors and locals. Most people's choice for the best sushi in San Francisco is Kyo-ya, in the Sheraton Palace, which is not part of the hotel. The perennially booked Postrio, owned by the Los Angeles restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, is installed in the Prescott, a hotel it has greatly helped by its popularity. One of my favorite restaurants in the Boston area is Rialto, at the Charles Hotel, in Harvard Square, where Jody Adams cooks Mediterranean-themed dishes and the staff is especially welcoming. This, too, is an independent restaurant: Michela Larson, a co-owner, renounced the headaches of her own Michela's for the convenience of working within a hotel. A few chains, most notably the Four Seasons and Meridien, take special care to make sure their restaurants figure among the city's best, and can outspend the local competition. If the location is convenient and you need to entertain, you could well choose your hotel by its restaurant.
EVEN if you don't come equipped with the phone numbers of local food experts (as my colleagues and I try to do), you can easily find some on your own -- just by walking around. My most fertile ground for restaurant recommendations is the fruit markets, gourmet shops, and bakeries I invariably stop at. When I see a shop whose owners take obvious pride in what they do, I ask them where they like to eat. I don't start with "Can you tell me what the best restaurants are here?" That almost always elicits the standard tourist list, often of places the people have heard about but not actually tried. (A significant proportion of respondents to the Zagat surveys, I'm convinced, report what they've read or been told is the best restaurant in town rather than rating highly the place they actually like most.) I ask where they would go with their family if they didn't feel like cooking. Wine merchants, too, usually know a town's restaurants inside out, and wine connoisseurs will assure you that they know far more about food than food experts know about wine.
Not just food and wine merchants are interested in food, of course. If you find an antiques dealer or a bookseller or a design shop whose taste corresponds closely to yours, chances are that the owner's taste in restaurants will too. I've often been steered through accidental meetings and chats to trattorias far more sympathetic than the ones I heard of from colleagues, whose loyalties are stronger to particular local restaurateurs than they are to me. When I was first in Florence, a woman who hand-marbleized paper near the central Mercato San Lorenzo told me about a restaurant, open for lunch only, with laminated tables and a big stove in the back where patrons point to the pot that interests them and are served a plate of one of the two or three stews of the day. I learned much about just how simple Tuscan food is at that stove (it's now behind glass, after government inspectors had their way), and I still stop at Mario out of mixed nostalgia and hunger.
Bringing the conversation around to food can serve to break a tense moment. One evening, freshly arrived in Copenhagen, I was detaining the two women who ran the city's Alitalia office with a complicated ticketing change. Their irritation vanished when I asked where to go for my first Danish pastry and what kind I should order. One of the women said that puffy, buttery, almond-filled wienerbrød more or less kept her living in Denmark, and enumerated the variations I'd have to try, with pinwheel and pretzel shapes and jam and hazelnut fillings. The other told me how she had learned to bake new things for her family, but nothing came close to what she could buy in town. Long after they should have been on their way home, the women insisted on leading me most of the way to La Glace, so that I would reach it before it closed.
CASING a joint beforehand is the best way to avoid disappointment. "I know it when I see it," a careful eater told me while explaining why he refuses all advice and instead starts walking around when he hits a new town. A café described as characteristic and full of neighborhood locals can be dirty and cramped and sad. Even if the only time you can pass by is in off hours, the attitude of the staff can be indicative.
I make conversation after asking to look at the menu: That apple tart on the dessert cart -- who made it, and what's in the crust? The whitefish on the menu -- is there much whitefish caught around here? These are admittedly annoying questions for an employee who was looking forward to a few undisturbed hours; but someone at a restaurant that cares about the food will usually describe what's on offer with enthusiasm. I've walked into restaurants where the manager was screaming at a busboy, and walked out. I also walked into, for example, the Brasserie de la Poste, in the fancy Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris, and was powerfully taken with the group at the one occupied table: the manager, the three waiters, and two cooks. All of them were smoking, drinking beer, and so clearly enjoying each other that I knew I wanted to come back.
In the end, serendipity remains a traveler's best friend. Getting lost trying to find a museum of folk art or naval history or old stamps can lead you to a place full of locals having a good time; figure out when you can come back, and book a table. Or stop when you see a hand-lettered sign for some local specialty -- as I did at the end of a very long drive around the Marches, the Italian region east of Tuscany. CRESCIONE, the awkward red painted letters read on a wooden sign that seemed to be built of oversized popsicle sticks. I vaguely knew crescione to be a puffy filled version of piadina, the region's famous flatbread, which has lard (my favorite baking fat) in the dough. When I walked into the roadside shack, I found a dozen rickety tables covered not with bread dough but with overhanging sheets of smooth, dark-gold hand-rolled pasta, to be cut into tagliatelle and served with ragu. This pasta would be the restaurant's last dish, the gray-haired and slow-moving couple I found on the other side of a big pass-through told me. They were closing for good the following day, Sunday, after lunch.
It was not yet dinnertime, but the wizened woman who ran the restaurant said she had to give me a plate of farewell tagliatelle, and started slicing one of the pasta sheets to ribbons. Naturally, I decided that this would be the best pasta I would ever taste. And it was -- almost. "Ever" isn't over: I'm always on the lookout for another ramshackle roadside sign.
Illustration by Theo Rudnak
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1997; The World as Your Oyster; Volume 279, No. 1; pages 36-39.