"Where are you guys from?" the bartender asked, looking a little confused.
"Australia," I replied.
"Oh. Really? But you didn't order the beef cheeks?"
We didn't order the beef cheeks. We ordered the marinated anchovies, drenched in herbaceous oil. We ordered the "arroz temporada", the rice dish of the season. And we ordered vermouth to drink. But we didn't get the beef cheeks.
The restaurant is Atari, one of the more popular bars in the Old Town of San Sebastian, Spain. It's one of those joints with a long wooden bar laden with good food, row upon colourful row of cold pintxos laid out on display, and a long menu of excellent hot food available to order. You see all sorts of delicious things being pumped out by the small kitchen here, passed through the busy dining room and devoured on the spot.
You see all sorts of delicious things, and yet Australians, apparently, all order the beef cheeks.
The bartender went on to explain: "I usually try to recommend them something else, but they think I'm lying, or tricking them. There's so much to eat here, but ... Australians always get the beef cheeks."
You can see what's happened here. Someone, somewhere, has raved about the beef cheeks at Atari. I don't know if it was a food writer or a blogger, some influencer or a travel writer. Someone has mentioned to their Australian following that you have to get the beef cheeks at Atari, and it's exploded.
These things tend to build on themselves, rapidly. One person starts it, then the next person goes and posts something to their social media followers, then those people all do the same, and then all of a sudden you have this thing where Australians are only ordering one dish: the beef cheeks.
This is not unique to our compatriots. Japanese tourists in San Sebastian, for example, all tend to go to a bar called San Telmo. Why? I'm not sure. Probably a guidebook.
It's not unique to this point in time, either: travellers have been doing this sort of thing for decades, blindly following the advice of others, ignoring the myriad and almost infinite options a destination offers in favour of sticking with whatever it is that's already been reviewed and recommended.
I first discovered this in Vietnam in the early 2000s. I was travelling north to south, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, and I kept bumping into the same travellers everywhere I went. I saw them in Hue, I saw them in Hoi An, I saw them in Nha Trang. Same people. We were all staying in the same hostels, eating at the same restaurants, visiting the same sights.
We were all using the Lonely Planet as reference, too. This huge country, with all of these places to go and things to see, and we were all following the book's guidelines and going and seeing the exact same things.
This sort of behaviour is understandable in a way, particularly when you're new to travel. You want a safety net. You want comfort. But now more than ever, there is so much information out there, so many avenues for advice, so many different paths you could choose to take. Why are we all doing the same thing?
Stop ordering the beef cheeks. Stop following travel advice to the absolute letter. Stop ignoring tips from locals – "I try to recommend them something else ..." – and just do the thing you were originally told to do.
Atari's beef cheeks seemed to have gained notoriety among Australian travellers. Photo: Atari
Travel at its best should involve the taking of a few chances. It should involve listening to local advice every now and then. It should involve going with your gut. Or even going against your gut.
Yes, you'll end up going wrong sometimes. You'll visit a crappy restaurant. You'll stay in a dodgy hotel. But you'll also find yourself on the wildest adventures. You'll meet people. You'll try new things. You'll have new experiences. You'll feel a sense of achievement that you'll never get from blindly following someone else's advice. This will be your discovery. Your thing.
This approach will take vigilance, too, because it's so easy to fall into the old trap. I went back to Atari a few days after that original visit, taking a few more friends there, showing them around. We'd finished our food and were about to vacate our table, and I'd spied a young couple looking like they needed a hand, so I offered up our spot once we'd left.
"Thanks mate," the guy said with a broad Aussie accent. "What did you guys order? Apparently the beef cheeks here are awesome."
How closely do you follow advice when you're travelling? Do you think we need to make an effort to take a few chances, or is it better to go with what's good? Have you had the beef cheeks at Atari?