There's a fleeting moment of fear, a small pang of trepidation, when you walk into a restaurant in a foreign country and realise that you have no idea what's going on. You have no clue how this thing works – no knowledge of where to sit, how to order, what to order, or even what food is available.
Foreign restaurants are often a minefield of etiquette and expectation, of unwritten rules and secrets of best practice. The way you conduct yourself in a San Sebastian pintxos bar will never fly in a high-end Tokyo sushi restaurant; the style of eating in an Indian thali joint will earn you looks of horror in a Lyonnaise bouchon.
This is both the joy and the fear of eating when you're on the road. Many of the world's truly great gastronomic centres boast eateries that are unique to their location, that feature not only their own cuisine, but their own way of serving and eating it. To dine at these places is to truly immerse yourself in the local way of life, to understand a city, to embrace its passions and its hunger.
The trick is knowing which restaurants to look for, and what to do once you're inside.
Traditional restaurants in Lyon, France called Bouchon Lyonnais, which serve typical regional dishes. Photo: iStock
BOUCHONS, LYON, FRANCE
WHY WE LOVE IT For those who love French food, but hate stuffy fine-dining; for those who want to eat the best cuisine but can't afford Michelin stars – Lyonnaise bouchons are for you. These basic, sometimes scruffy eateries in France's gastronomic capital remove all of the formalities that are often paired with the country's cuisine, and replace it with a friendly atmosphere and affordable, delicious local food.
MUST ORDER Bouchons specialise in simple but beautifully prepared local cuisine such as chicken liver mousse, boudin noir – blood sausage – and tripe.
MUST DRINK Lyonnaise bouchons began as drinking dens, so you would be crazy to go past wine from nearby Burgundy, Cotes du Rhone or Beaujolais.
MUST KNOW Bouchon is the French word for "cork". When these taverns were first opened in the 19th century they would display wine corks in their windows to indicate you could go there to drink without needing to eat as well.
THE DETAILS Call in to Chez Georges (8 Rue de Garet, Lyon), or Val d'Isere (64 Rue de Bonnel, Lyon), both open Monday to Friday. See lyon-france.com
Brazilian style beef ribs from a churrascaria steakhouse in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: iStock
THE CHURRASCARIAS, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
WHY WE LOVE IT Brazilian churrascarias are no place for vegetarians. These restaurants are all about meat, about the finest cuts of beef and chicken and pork, carried to your table by waiters who carve them fresh. In every churrascaria you'll spot a huge buffet filled with salads and fruits, but it's a trick: don't fill up on salad. Because soon the meat will arrive in "rodizio", or all-you-can-eat fashion, flame-grilled cut after flame-grilled cut in a never-ending cascade of protein.
MUST ORDER While it's tempting to take every bit of meat offered, hang out for the specialties: the pork loin with crackling; racks of beef ribs wheeled over on a trolley; house-made chorizo; chicken hearts.
MUST DRINK Begin with every Carioca's favourite cocktail, the caipirinha: cachaca – a sugar cane spirit – mixed with sugar, fresh limes and ice.
MUST KNOW Some churrascarias will give you a medallion to place on your table to signal your intentions to servers. One side is green, for "feed me", the other is red, for "please stop".
THE DETAILS Churrascaria Palace (R. Rodolfo Dantes 16, Copacabana) is open daily. See churrascariapalace.com.br
THE PINTXOS BAR, SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
WHY WE LOVE IT For food lovers, the Spanish town of San Sebastian is Disneyland. It's Dreamworld. It's the best place you'll ever visit. There are hundreds of bars here that serve "pintxos", the Basque version of tapas, small bites created with an almost impossible amount of inventiveness and love. Pintxos bars are casual affairs, where diners yell their orders for either cold dishes or hot snacks across the bar, eat standing up, and chuck their used napkins on the floor.
MUST ORDER Every bar in San Sebastian has a specialty; some of the best include prawn skewers at Goiz Argi, and calves liver in Madeira sauce at La Cuchara de San Telmo.
MUST DRINK The local Basque wine, txakoli, is an acidic, lightly sparkling white that goes perfectly with pintxos.
MUST KNOW Though you could help yourself to the cold pintxos displayed on the bar counters, it's considered better form to ask the barman to serve you. Also, pay for all food and drinks when you're ready to leave.
THE DETAILS Goiz Argi (Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4, San Sebastian), is open daily; La Cuchara de San Telmo (31 de Agosto Kalea, 28) is open Tuesday to Sunday. See sansebastianturismo.com
Customers wait for their cicchetti at a traditional bacaro in Venice, Italy. The bacari, open just for lunch and dinner, are the local down to earth version of wine bars. Photo: Getty Images
THE BACARI BAR, VENICE, ITALY
WHY WE LOVE IT It might come as a surprise even to people who have visited Venice to find this city has a cuisine and a restaurant style all of its own. That's because "bacari" bars are secreted away from the touristy hotspots, occupying small shop fronts in quiet alleyways. They are, however, worth seeking out: bacari are wine bars that specialise in "cicchetti", or tapas-style Venetian snacks. There are often no menus – peruse what's on offer in the display cases, or ask the barman.
MUST ORDER Seafood is best: try oysters, fried calamari, fried crab claws, or deep-fried zucchini flowers stuffed with salt cod.
MUST DRINK Bacari are wine bars, so the choice is obvious. The only question is, vino bianco, or rosso?
MUST KNOW Though we've recommended a bacaro below, the best way to discover these places is to wander the alleys of Venice and follow your nose.
THE DETAILS Osteria al Squero (Dorsoduro 943, Venice – open Thursday to Tuesday) is the place to begin. See en.turismovenezia.it
Indian meal with curry chicken and plain rice on banana leaf tray. Photo: iStock
THE THALI JOINT, KOCHI, INDIA
WHY WE LOVE IT There's something beautifully simple, primal even, about using your hands to eat. It's a physical connection with your food, a ritual cherished by those who practice it, and feared by those who have never tried. How do you lever food towards you mouth when you don't have a bowl or a fork? That's something to get your head around when you eat a southern Indian thali – a smorgasbord of curries, rice, chutneys, sweets and pappadums, served on a banana leaf, eaten with your right hand.
MUST ORDER Most thali restaurants in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu serve a set menu. Sit down and the food will be placed on the banana leaf in front of you.
MUST DRINK Most southern Indians accompany the strong flavours of their food with only water.
MUST KNOW It's essential to wash your hands before you eat, and to wash them again afterwards. There's usually a handwash basin at the back of the restaurant.
THE DETAILS Brindhaven Vegetarian Restaurant (32/2352 Civil Line Rd, Palarivattom, Kerala), is open seven days. See incredibleindia.org
A succulent grilled steak and vegetables, traditional food in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo: iStock
THE STEAKHOUSE, BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA
WHY WE LOVE IT Most Portenos share a passion for the three "Fs": football, fashion, and food. And there's no food more popular than steak, which is consumed in almost frightening quantities in the Argentinian capital on a nightly basis. The restaurants that serve steak are often old, traditional places that cook their meat on wood-fired parrilla grills, and are fiercely proud of their produce.
MUST ORDER Steak, obviously. However, don't just stick to the cuts you know, such as "ojo de bife", or rib-eye, and "bife de chorizo", the sirloin. Try "entrana", the skirt steak, or "vacio", the flank.
MUST DRINK There's no option but a bottle of malbec, the red wine that Argentina's Mendoza region is famous for.
MUST KNOW When you order a steak in Buenos Aires, that's all you get: a slab of charred meat. If you want sides such as potatoes or salad, order them separately. Also, let the "asadors", or chefs, decide how best to cook each particular cut.
THE DETAILS La Cabrera Parrilla (Jose Antonio Cabrera 5099, Palermo) is open seven days. See lacabrera.com.ar
Is there anything as quintessentially Japanese as sushi? Photo: iStock
THE SUSHI BAR, TOKYO, JAPAN
WHY WE LOVE IT Leaving aside the fact you will be served the freshest, most delicious seafood you've ever eaten when you dine at a Tokyo sushi bar, this is a cultural experience in its own right. There's such high regard for the art of the sushi chef, such reverence for the product that's created. There are three types of sushi restaurants in Tokyo: "kaiten", or conveyor belt sushi; slightly more expensive a la carte restaurants; and high-end eateries, tiny places where diners sit at the bar and watch as the master chef performs.
MUST ORDER If you're eating at a high-end restaurant such as Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten (see below), the menu is "omakase", or chef's choice. Just sit back and wait for each round – anywhere from 15 to 25 pieces of sushi – to be placed in front of you, ready to eat immediately.
MUST DRINK The most popular accompaniment is "nihonshu", or sake, the rice spirit that can have as much depth and complexity as a fine wine.
MUST KNOW Traditionally, high-end sushi is eaten with your hands. And don't dunk it in soy sauce unless the chef tells you to; even then, place the fish in the soy, not the rice. Pop it in your mouth fish side down.
THE DETAILS Sukiyabashi Jiro Honten (4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo) is open Monday to Saturday. Bookings essential. See sushi-jiro.jp/shop-info
Dim sum is a classic of Cantonese cuisine and popular throughout Hong Kong and Cantonese-speaking communities. Photo: iStock
THE DIM SUM RESTAURANT, HONG KONG, CHINA
WHY WE LOVE IT Most Australians need no introduction to dim sum: it's an institution here (even though we tend to refer to it as "yum cha". However, you haven't had dim sum until you've had it in its homeland, Hong Kong, where some of the tastiest steamed and fried treats you have ever seen are wheeled around on carts in bustling restaurants and snapped up with gusto.
MUST ORDER The classic dim sum dish is har gow, or prawn dumpling. However, at a place like Lei Garden in central Hong Kong (see below), grab pork and prawn sui mai, and steamed buns stuffed with sweet custard.
MUST DRINK Though it's tempting to order a beer with your brunch, the traditional accompaniment is Chinese tea. When you're ready for a refill, turn the lid of your teapot upside down.
MUST KNOW The system of ordering at most Hong Kong dim sum joints is the same as in Australia: wait for the carts (if the restaurant uses them) to come around and point at what you want. Some places, however, do a la carte, while at others diners will jump out of their seats and chase the food around the room.
THE DETAILS Lei Garden (1 Harbour View St, Central) is open seven days. See leigarden.hk
Locals and tourists alike head to Chinatown in Singapore. Photo: iStock
THE HAWKER CENTRES, SINGAPORE
WHY WE LOVE IT There's a problem with Singaporean hawker centres: too much choice. Too many dishes to order. Too many plates of food cooked by too many talented chefs who are all charging far too little for their fare. Every hawker centre in Singapore is like the shopping mall food court of your dreams, a place where passionate purveyors of fine cuisine gather to sell their wares to the masses.
MUST ORDER Each hawker centre has a huge variety, from Malay cuisine (char kway teow, laksa) to Indian food (masala dhosas, vegetable curries), Chinese dishes (Peking duck, congee), and Singaporean (Hainanese chicken rice, chilli crab).
MUST DRINK Keep it simple: go for water, or tea, juice or a beer.
MUST KNOW To order food at a hawker centre, queue up at each individual stall – most will specialise in only a few dishes – order, pay, and wait.
THE DETAILS The Old Airport Road Food Centre (51 Old Airport Road, Singapore), is open seven days. See visitsingapore.com
STYLE COUNSEL: CHEFS SHARE THEIR FAVOURITE TYPES OF RESTAURANTS
ALEJANDRO SARAVIA, PASTUSO, MELBOURNE
"I love the cevicherias of Lima – they're all about taking fresh ingredients, and focusing on quality, they don't change too much. Restaurant Sonia is very special. It only seats 20 people, and it's run by the wife of a famous fisherman from that area. The way they established themselves, the husband, before he'd go fishing each day, he and his friends would stop at his house and have bread with deep-fried sardines, and fish soup, and then they would go fishing and come back and have ceviche. They don't accept bookings there. You just have to knock on the door."
KYLIE KWONG, BILLY KWONG, SYDNEY
"My favourite style of restaurant is the tapas of Barcelona, Spain. There are so many in Barcelona – packed to the rafters, brimming with life, offering vibrant wine lists and small plates featuring delectable seasonal produce. Bar Pinotxo, a quintessential tapas bar in the La Boqueria Market, is a must; the dynamic, hustle-and-bustle atmosphere and the fact that it is a family-owned and run business makes it such a special experience. Their grilled baby squid with white beans and aged balsamic is a must!"
ROSS LUSTED, THE BRIDGE ROOM, SYDNEY
"Kyoto is known for 'yakiniku', or grilled meat restaurants. I was working in Tokyo, and a friend told me about a place there called Gyuho. It's not in the red light district, but a lot of the maikos [geishas] go there. Masanobu [Nishiyama, the chef] has been there for 20 years, and he specialises in Kobe beef and French wine. There's no wine list, Masanubu just pours this amazing burgundy and bordeaux, the beef is genuine Kobe, and when you have one chef there for 20 years, with one grill ... It's extraordinary."
ANALIESE GREGORY, BAR BROSE, SYDNEY
"One of my all time favourite food cities has to be San Sebastian. I love the pintxos bars, the copious amounts of food on display, the fact there are no seats and you just stand and smash food, the super-thin paper napkins that everyone tosses on the floor so that late at night it's a sea of paper. My favourite spots include Bordaberri for sweetbread ravioli, Bar Nestor for the best tortilla and La Vina for the best cheesecake."
DEAN LITTLE, CUMULUS INC, MELBOURNE
"Eating in Korea is phenomenal. People often greet each other there with, 'Have you eaten?', rather than, 'How are you?' Seoul is a bit of a melting pot with no super-clear 'must-do' style – the food there is generally cleaner in its flavour profile than the rest of Korea, and either directed at higher-end eateries in their fashion districts, or for drink matching to support their culture of after-work drinks. "
BEST BAR NONE: FIVE DRINKING DENS WITH GREAT FOOD
APERITIVO BARS, BOLOGNA, ITALY
At first you assume there's been a mistake. You're sitting at the bar with a glass of wine, minding your business, when a plate of food appears, a dish of local delicacies: parmigiano-reggiano, prosciutto, bread, olives. You didn't order it, but it's yours. This is aperitivo hour in Bologna, where small snacks come free with your drink.
MAKGEOLLI BARS, JEONJU, SOUTH KOREA
Jeonju is South Korea's gastronomic hub, and it's here you'll find bars dedicated to makgeolli, a milky beer made from fermented rice. Makgeolli bars are as much about food, however, as they are booze. Sit down and order a kettle of makgeolli and various snacks will be brought to your table with it – the more you drink, the more snacks are served.
IZAKAYAS, OSAKA, JAPAN
A Japanese izakaya is principally a place to consume sake. However, Japan's obsession with food means there's always something good to eat at these smoky dens: often small, tapas-style plates of high-quality seafood, or grilled meats, or vegetables, or a mix of all three. In Osaka, try the takoyaki, or octopus balls.
TAPAS BARS, GRANADA, SPAIN
Much like at a Bolognese aperitivo bar, the food comes free at tapas bars in Granada, in southern Spain. The only difference here is that it isn't just for a few hours – it's all day and night. Order a glass of wine and you'll be presented with a plate of food: cured jamon, manchego cheese, or olives. Purchase another drink, receive another plate of food.
BEER HALLS, MUNICH
Don't expect to leave a Munich beer hall feeling hungry. Not only will you be consuming heroic amounts of the local brew (each hall is owned by a particular Bavarian brewery), but you'll be feasting on pork knuckle with sauerkraut, or bratwurst with potatoes, or whopping great doughy pretzels. Delicious.
TO DINE FOR: CLASSIC RESTAURANT STYLES WE ALL KNOW AND LOVE
PIZZA RESTAURANTS, NAPLES
The restaurants in the birthplace of pizza operate in a recognisable fashion: sit down, order food and drinks from a waiter, and it will be brought to your table. The only thing to understand is that here, pizza has the barest minimum of toppings, and it's one pizza per person, served unsliced.
RAMEN BARS, TOKYO
Much of the Japanese travel experience is confusing to first-timers, so it's no surprise to discover that ordering ramen noodles is just that. You'll need to feed money into the vending machine at the front of the store, push the button for the dish you desire, wait for a ticket to pop out, and then hand that to the chef.
As with Neapolitan pizza joints, there's little to surprise first-timers at a Parisian bistro. You simply sit down, peruse a menu, place your order with a waiter, and prepare for gastronomic heaven. One thing that might come in handy, of course, is a basic knowledge of food-related French words.
Traditional Greek restaurants tend to cook their oven-baked dishes in the morning, for consumption at lunchtime, so if you're after moussaka, or pastitsio, plan to have it in the middle of the day. In the evening it's all about fresh or grilled foods, the likes of fish, or octopus, or charred meats.
FAMILY DINING, BANGKOK
If you're dining a la carte in the Thai capital – that is, taking a break from the street food feast – know this: Thai food, unless it's noodle soup, is designed to be shared among everyone at the table. It's also eaten with a fork and a spoon, rather than chopsticks.
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