Eating out like a local

Authentic Arabian fare

Recently, I returned after a month travelling around Europe. I covered my usual summer haunts, the Costa Blanca, Munich, Frankfurt, and London, but I also got to see other places. I like the excitement of going to places I haven’t been before, discovering previously unknown sights, and eating in new restaurants.

I readily admit that I’m a hotel snob, but a restaurant adventurer. That is to say when I travel, I prefer to stay in luxury hotels, which offer international standards and comforts, but I seek out local restaurants. The smaller, the better. I’ve had many great meals in off the beaten track greasy spoons over the years, none of which broke the bank. It’s not about the money, of course, but the experience and the food. Anything I save is promptly converted into drinks at the hotel bar. Yes, I’m also a hotel bar connoisseur, but that’s another story.

The challenge then is to find such eateries in places you’ve never been to before. Take Venice, for example. It’s a fascinating city, but overrun with tourists crowding into the same old restaurants listed in their guidebooks or on travel websites. Sure, the food’s probably good in many of them, but what’s the point of going on holiday just to sit among tourists eating whatever the various travel resources suggest tourists should try while in Venice? Yet it was in Venice my globetrotting mum shared one of her best pieces of travel dining advice with me many years ago: Follow a local. Not any local, of course, but certain locals: Police men, taxi drivers and male pensioners. “Won’t female pensioners do, too?” you might ask? No, they won’t. Finding undiscovered local dining haunts, which serve great food cheaply, according to my mum, specifically calls for male pensioners. Why? We’ll come to that in a minute. Police men and taxi drivers are, of course, a given. If you see either entering a restaurant around dinnertime, drop everything and follow them without a care in the world – you’re guaranteed a hearty meal that won’t cost the earth. Back to the pensioners; my mum’s logic runs roughly like this: Single old men are probably widowers.

In happier times, their wives would have probably cooked dinner for them or they would have dined together in a fine restaurant. Alas, without wives and mindful to make their pension money go further, male pensioners out and about during dinnertime are likely on the way to a restaurant, which offers great home-cooked food at affordable prices. I shook my head at this when I heard it first, but it’s proven true on many occasions over the past few years. Mind you, on other occasions, I ended up outside residential care homes or private residences, but overall the process is worth the occasional trouble. It certainly worked in Venice, where I’ve eaten fantastic local food in places that will never feature in guidebooks.

More recently, I had some very tasty Chinese food in a place near the river Thames in London, courtesy of two plain clothes police officers, and a rather spicy meal in a café full of taxi drivers in Colombo. Okay, I admit it, it was more than “rather spicy”. It was so spicy I thought I’d blow up right in the middle of the restaurant much to the amusement of my fellow diners, who were suspiciously ogling the Western dude who was busy trying not to spontaneously combust.

The key is never to actually ask a local where you should dine. I did that in my rookie years, but only ever received “touristy” suggestions.

Depending where you are, locals are either unwilling to share their secret dinner spots with tourists or they don’t believe that you’re looking for something that’s truly authentic.

A word of caution, though: If you don’t speak the local language or can’t read the menu (if there is a menu!), proceed with caution. In Hungary, I once ended up eating tripe goulash (I hate tripe!), because it looked like beef, and in Thailand I once received something that looked like grey soup with extremely chewy bits of equally grey matter in it. The two waitresses started to laugh hysterically when I pointed at the dish on the menu (I don’t read Thai, I just pointed at something randomly, you understand, because I’m also a connoisseur of randomness). Perhaps I should have heeded the warning. On the bright side, at least the dish wasn’t spicy… 

By Martin Kubler