I’m frequently asked for restaurant and bar recommendations from my friends, and in my own travels, I’m always the (self-designated) person in charge of finding all the good spots to eat and drink. And it can be a little intimidating to sort through alllllll of the information on the internet. With everything at our fingertips, the endless possibilities also make decisions that much more difficult. After all, the best restaurants don’t always get the most publicity, and the most hyped up places aren’t always deserving of so much attention. So it takes a little work, but I think I’ve got some great tips for finding the best places. And while it’s always a risk, it is so rewarding to step outside of your comfort zone and try a new place in a new city, especially if you end up loving it.
My Guide to Finding the Best Restaurants and Bars When Traveling:
This part requires a little proactivity. Whenever you see a good looking city guide in your daily reads, or a random restaurant or bar spotlight that appeals to you, even if it’s in a city you’ve never been to, bookmark it! I have bookmarks organized by city, so the folders are called “Chicago,” “San Fran,” etc. This way, even if I completely forget about the article I read, when I might find myself planning a trip to x city months later, I can easily recall some of the places that appealed to me.
Start your search early
The truly good places can be difficult to secure a meal at, so you should begin your search early and make reservations early. Since travel details are usually nailed down at least a couple of months in advance, you can begin to make your reservations this far ahead, as well. You can always cancel your reservations later—it’s just good to get them in the books.
Begin your search with Google
If you’re starting from scratch, start big. Google something like “best restaurants Nashville” or “Nashville restaurant guide,” most likely both (the same goes for bars). In scanning the search results, look for authentic articles. Although Yelp, Zagat, and TripAdvisor are all legitimate sources, I always avoid these sites (at least at this stage) for the mere fact that they rely too heavily on popularity and numbers. Also try to avoid sites that are sponsored by the city itself—restaurants are usually paying to be featured in those publications. You can do better! Some great results that might pop up are reviews by the New York Times, Bon Appetit, or Food & Wine. Another good place to start is with “Best of” lists by Thrillist and other similar names. And the most valuable of all is a local food blogger’s guide because you’ll hopefully gather an unbiased account and one that includes some lesser known restaurant names.
Get in the wormhole
Read away! Scan these articles and jot down any places that sound or look appealing. Star* those places that show up in more than one list or article. Pay attention to the source to get a feel for whether the place is being featured because it’s an outstanding $$$ five-star restaurant or because it’s a fantastic local up-and-coming spot. Both of these types are great, but perhaps you have an idea in mind of what you’re looking for, so it’s something to note. Also, sometimes (and I hate that this is true), a restaurant gets a lot of hype in large part because of its stature (maybe due to its celebrity or its famed chef), and for anyone on a budget, there are definitely other more affordable places that are of equal if not higher caliber. Just read as much as you can, and pay attention to the consistently negative feedback, too (ex. “this place is overrated” written over and over again).
Once you have a pretty good list, Google the restaurants themselves. Check out their websites, check out any additional publicity the restaurants may have received, and look at their menus, missions, and photos. Just get a feel for the places. Once you’re at this level, you have already broken through the popularity barrier, and you should get a transparent view of each place. The best restaurants do get rave reviews, and usually pretty consistently. They may have 600 reviews online, or they may have 16, but they get great reviews, especially from reliable sources (read here as 'foodies who know good food,' even if they’re regular people like you and me).
Make thoughtful reservations
Make reservations at those places you are most excited about (that accept reservations), using a calendar for the week as a guide. I usually make the reservations for later in the evening, because I find that traveling always ends up leading to later meals throughout the day. I’ll also make note of the locations of places, so that maybe I can pencil in an awesome cocktail bar for the same night that we’re going to eat dinner at a joint around the corner from it. Another thing I try to do is take advantage of those places that serve small plates. Jon and I love to bop around and try as many places as possible, even in one day, so I might pick a small-plates place over a super filling meal if I’m having trouble deciding between the two. Also—many places don’t take reservations, but that doesn’t mean you should miss them! Write down, or bookmark, those that don’t take reservations so that you don’t forget about them. Save all your reservation confirmation emails in a travel folder to reference later, and don’t forget to cancel any that you decide you’re not going to use.
Lastly—talk to people once you’re there
If you’ve just arrived in the city and you are in love with your first restaurant experience, ask your server (and then ask your busser, and the bartender too) what his/her favorite restaurants are, or where to get the best coffee, or what places should not be missed. Don’t be afraid to change your plan! Stray from your schedule and try out a place that you just learned about from a real-live local who (presumably) knows good food based on his/her choice of work at an awesome spot.
Happy good-eats travels!