Travel tips: How to avoid the tourist food traps and eat like a local

So, you touch down in a foreign city, eager to hit the coolest bars and restaurants, looking to get a real sense of a destination through its cuisine and dining culture. But where do you start? Often the sheer volume of choice and fickle nature of dining trends can make choosing a memorable restaurant a worthy but ultimately annoying and exhausting exercise.

There are of course the obvious steps. The internet springs to mind. But online review sites are generally written by other tourists and as for guidebooks, well, they're quick to date and most wouldn't claim to be written by food experts anyway. 

Then there's the concierge. At a reputable hotel, they will no doubt understand the city well, but how do you know they they're not getting a sly kickback or won't recommend the kind of bland, one-size-fits-all type of restaurant.

To get to the bottom of this dilemna, I spoke with a host of food experts from Australia around the world, successful food truck operators, leading chefs and respected guides, to really find out how it's possible to eat local. Take note, and you may just avoid slurping on overpriced slush-puppy margaritas and chicken wings at TGI McFunsters.

 

TEN WAYS NOT TO EAT LIKE A TOURIST

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

From San Francisco to Singapore, neighbourhoods are earning reputations as foodie hotspots. Figuring out which areas to target can save a lot of aggravation and even determine where you choose to stay.  "A lot of travellers make the mistake of not looking into the area where they are visiting; instead just wandering out of the hotel in the hope of finding somewhere good to eat," says Elvis Abrahanowicz. "If you plan it well ahead and be sure that you choose a good neighbourhood to stay in, the chances of a great place to eat being just around the corner from your accommodation is more likely." For the most part these areas tend to be removed from tourist hubs but occasionally they are one and the same.

FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK

In an age where technology is king, many of us would rather fiddle with our iPhones than take the drastic step of engaging directly with local people. Famous Fat Dave (yes, that's how he insists on being referred to) who runs acclaimed food tours around New York's culinary underbelly is adamant that this remains a vital factor in succeeding to eat like a local. "I've based my whole life and business on eating where the people, the locals, the folk eat," he says. "People often ask me, 'so do you use Facebook or Twitter or something to find these spots?' And then they're shocked,  SHOCKED,  when I tell them that I have this crazy idea of speaking to human beings and asking them where to go. If I can do it, you can do it. Look people in the eyes, and ask them, 'where should I eat?' and 'what should I order'." 

IT'S ALL IN THE TIMING

It's no myth that some cultures eat at hours most Australians would generally consider insane. Lara Dunston believes choosing when to go out is just as important as where. "Eat when, where and how the locals eat," she says. "If the locals eat after 9pm as they do in Buenos Aires and Madrid then know that if you eat at 6pm, you'll only be eating with other tourists. But do keep in mind that there are going to be many different types of locals, just as there are in your hometown, so follow the lead of people like you." In Spain and parts of Latin America this trend is particularly pertinent; when most Australians may be ready to turn in, many Latinos will just be starting to think about dinner. Joanna Wivell agrees.  "The first thing I would recommend is that you try to fit into the local eating times which are different to most other countries," she says. "Lunchtime starts at 2pm and is regarded as the main meal of the day. People do go out for dinner of course but 'la hora de comer', lunchtime is sacred. This later time for lunch means that dinner is also later with most restaurants taking their first reservations at 9pm."

SPOT THE TRAP

One of the first steps involves tuning your senses to a potential tourist trap. While sometimes the signs are glaringly obvious there are also more subtle, nefarious signs. "Do not go to restaurants advertised by the hotel you are staying in or which have a "deal" every night," says Mo Moubayed. "Also be wary of any place where the menu caters for everyone and has numerous cuisines."  Similarly, there's a danger with restaurants that appear way too eager for your custom. As chef Andrew McConnell says: "Any restaurant with a spruiker out the front or a place with a light box containing photos of the food and interior should be avoided." And if all that fails, make sure the place is busy.

BEWARE THE DEAL AND THE STEAL

Aussies may still love their $10 steak nights. But when you're overseas the ubiquitous, aforementioned  "deal nights" should be treated with serious reservations. If a restaurant is genuinely popular you have to wonder why they're resorting to such discounting? It's also worth considering how they're making up that lost revenue? Is it the quality of meat or the less than ethical suppliers that deliver the food to your plate? On the flip side, be wary of charges for items that are normally free, like water or basic condiments. "NYC has the best tap water in America, and we are very proud of that,"  Famous Fat Dave says. The only free thing in this town is tap water. If a waiter comes by with Evian and cracks it open and pours it without asking if you want tap, run!"

Advertisement

LEARN THE LINGO

Granted, it takes a bit of pluck attempting to order food in a foreign language but have the guts to give it a shot and you'll be surprised.  "I always do research on the local food and wine I should eat in a hidden away province," says McConnell. "And learning a little of the local dialect goes a long way in a restaurant when ordering or looking for something special on the menu." None of this is to suggest you need to be proficient enough to debate world economics. A few pleasantries and a handful of well-rehearsed questions will demonstrate you've made the effort. And even if you don't understand the responses you can always, nod, smile politely and keep your fingers crossed under the table.

GO WITH THE FLOW

Not everything is going to be just like home, so embrace that concept rather than loose your cool. Personal space for instance, is less of an issue in some countries, where a certain amount of argy-bargy is considered part of the fun rather than an act of aggression. "You will find that the Spaniards are used to the hustle and bustle,"  Wivell says, "the feeling of being surrounded by others in busy spaces so my advice is to go with the flow. Don't worry too much about being in someone else's way or someone being in yours when standing in tapas bars. People will ask you when they need to move past you." So push back gently, don't get flustered and above all, keep smiling. 

DO YOUR RESEARCH

While it's true a significant proportion of online restaurant reviews may have been written by other tourists, some research is definitely the smart play. "Get eating tips from local guides written by restaurant critics based in that city, the dining pages of the city's best newspapers, or an entertainment magazine/website like Time Out,"  Dunston says. "Avoid anywhere a hotel concierge suggests you eat, as they tend to play it safe because they're too scared you'll get sick. Most concierges also tend to send guests to places where they're getting commissions."  It's also worth turning to friends and family, chances are, someone's travelled to the same spot recently. A simple conversation, a shout out on Facebook, it can lead to some of the best recommendations.

GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Don't be a sook. No, you don't need to be chomping down on the gooey abdomen of a deep fried tarantula, but you do need to open your mind to experiencing new flavours, styles of cooking and sample dishes you may have never tried before. Few things are more tedious than the play-it-safe traveller when to meal-times. Remember, food is intrinsically linked to the history and culture of a country, so eat like the locals do, and you'll get a truer sense of what that destination is all about.

RULES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and there are good restaurants in touristy areas. Famous Fat Dave says Katz Deli in New York may be full of tourists but sometimes the pastrami is transcendent. "I'm Jewish and I had the most religious experience of my life, not in temple or at my bar mitzvah, but sitting in the back of Katz facing a wall devouring a pastrami reuben  and new pickle." Dunston says she often tell people to avoid restaurants with spectacular views, overlooking tourist sights, or locations in tourist attractions as they're almost always dreadful but an exception is "one of my favourite restaurant in the world", namely "Quay overlooking the Sydney Opera House. Wivell  loves Madrid's Botin, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest restaurant in the world.

TEN MORE CLASSIC OVERSEAS DINING FAUX PAS

1. STICK TO THE RULES

In Asia, never stick your chopsticks upright in the food (or, heaven forbid, use them as drumsticks or the like) as it is considered an omen of death. Not something likely to ingratiate you to fellow diners.

2. NOT THE DONE THING

In France, ordering a quality cut of steak "well-done" will likely cause the chef to emerge from the kitchen baring a sizeable kitchen knife not intended for said steak.

3. DOGGONE BAD FORM

Beware the doggy bag request. While it might be fine at your local Italian or Thai back home  (and there's certainly an admirable logic to not wasting food ) in some places this is seen as cheap and rude.

4. DON'T SAY CHEESE

Never order Parmesan with your pizza or pasta in Italy. Though it will be offered with a few select dishes, it's largely seen as the equivalent of slathering a filet mignon in tomato sauce.

5. ON THE HOOK

In Spain and some other parts of Europe, women never put their handbags on the floor, no matter how flash the restaurant. Culturally the floor is a place for rubbish and dirt, use hooks often found under the table or place it on a chair.

6. TOO MUCH

Be mindful of your portions. In some countries, such as Greece or Italy, not eating enough of the meal can be a sign you didn't enjoy the meal, while in other places, such as Japan, always wait to be offered more.

7. NOT SO GREAT DIVIDE

Especially in many parts of Europe, excessive examination when dividing up the bill is a sign of stinginess. And let's be honest, it's pretty tiresome anywhere, if you're bill splitting, just let it go if someone had an extra beer.

8. WAIT,  THERE'S MORE

In America failing to tip at a restaurant is tantamount to robbery. Most wait staff in the US are paid a meagre salary and depend on tips to live. Fifteen to 18 per cent for lunch, and 18 to 20 per cent for dinner is the norm.

9. VIVE LA DIFFERENCE

Don't believe you know better than the chef in a foreign country just because he or she might have a different approach to what you're used to at home. That's part of the fun so let them do their thing.

10. THE BIG TURN-OFF

Some of the basic dining out rules that apply at home also operate overseas. Don't spend meal times fiddling with your phone. It's just plain rude, put it away and engage with those around you.

FIVE GREAT FOOD AND RESTAURANT APPS

FOURSQUARE

Great for one-liner tips that cut through the fluff. (Free).

YELP 

More than 50 million reviews for businesses around the world, many of them restaurants and bars. (Free).

FOODSPOTTING 

Great for those who enjoy a visually driven guide to their food. (Free).

LOCAL EATS 

Focuses on comparing the best restaurants in the US as rated by online dining sites, magazines and papers, theoretically ensuring on the cream rises. (99 cents).

BURPPLE

Guides you to places loved by locals using enticing photo reviews. (Free).

MEET THE EXPERTS

ANDREW MCCCONNELL, CHEF

McConnell's empire of Melbourne restaurants include Cumulus Inc, Cutler & Co and Supernormal. He was named Chef of the Year by The Age Good Food Guide 2015. See cumulusinc.com.aucutlerandco.com.aubuildersarmshotel.com.au/moon-under-watersupernormal.net.au 

JOANNA WIVELL, FOOD TOUR GUIDE

Having lived and worked in Madrid since 1999, Wivell founded cutting-edge tour outfit, Insider's Madrid, hiring a small team of Madrinelos who share a passion for the real Spain. See insidersmadrid.com 

LARA DUNSTON, BLOGGER

Dunston is a Cambodia-based Australian travel and food writer, who blogs about slow, local and experiential travel at Grantourismo. It is among Australia's most popular blogs. See grantourismotravels.com

ELVIS ABRAHANOWICZ, CHEF

Abrahanowicz is the co-founder and chef at Sydney's Porteno restaurant. He was awarded SMH Good Food Guide Chef of the Year in 2012 along with business partner Ben Milgate. See porteno.com.au 

FAMOUS FAT DAVE, FOOD TOUR GUIDE

Famous Fat Dave runs popular tours through the real New York City in a classic Checker Cab, minivan or on foot. He has appeared on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and isn't nearly as overweight as his name might suggest. See famousfatdave.com 

MO MOUBAYED, FOOD TRUCKER

Mo Moubayed is co-founder of Sydney's much loved food truck, Eat Art Truck and newly opened Thievery, a Middle Eastern inspired restaurant in Glebe. See eatarttruck.com and thethievery.com.au 

Comments