Travel Tips for Eating & Drinking Well
Independent and trusted
Venkatesh Rao coined an ingenious term: ‘Premium Mediocre’ makes so much sense. It’s referring to those times when on the surface everything looks great — premium, even — in the world of hospitality. Phô can be found and even pronounced correctly beyond Little Saigon. Truffle oil comes as standard drizzled over gourmet pizzas. Rare and exceptional is, well, everywhere and, paradoxically, commonplace. And it’s just not the same. Truth is, the proportions of great, average and bad venues are likely to be the same as they ever were.
We’ve changed. We’ve honed our instincts on what is first rate . We insist on the finest fresh truffles, demand authentic beluga caviar and manuka honey (not that we always get that) and we can smell true balsamic vinegar at 50 paces. We’ve learned so much about food and drinks we’re all connoisseurs. The restaurant business has also evolved. Switched-on graphic and interior design is universal thanks to branding tricks such as design app Canva. Notice the wave of retro hipster logos? The proliferation of Tollix chairs, the tangle of raw Edison lights hanging bunched nonchalantly in an industrial fit-out or bland Nordic-inspired scene? Progress has been, made but enlightenment still needs to be sought out.
Voting for mediocrity
Don’t be fooled into believing that everything that looks great is great. This proliferation of stylish venues is largely borne out of duplication so you can’t use design for quality as the signal it once was.
How to separate the wheat from the chaff without eating everywhere, wasting precious time and money and essentially voting for mediocrity?
It can be difficult enough in your hometown as venues open at an ever-increasing pace — what to do when you travel? Mealtimes are elevated in anticipation and expectation. An under-par breakfast, lunch or dinner can really bust your holiday vibe, while an inspired one can live forever in your memory.
Holiday dining, with its potent mix of new location, fresh food experiences and a relaxed you, is one of the top reasons to travel — even to nations previously on few people’s gastronomic radar. (Take a bow, Denmark.) This is why dining out is at the heart of travelling. We know greatness is out there, possibly all around, and we hate to think that we are missing out. That’s FOMO at play. We can and have had Jamon Iberico at home, so now in the cultural birthplace of Jamon our expectations are sky high. All we want is real, delicious and charming. It just has to be <better>.
Nothing beats finding somewhere unexpected that excels in every way.
There are more ways than ever to source intel, but this information overload can hinder rather than help decision making. There’s simply too much data and much of it isn’t worth reading.
TripAdvisor. The ultimate crowd-sourced review site for travellers — but is it really a reliable go-to for advice? Maybe it’s a winner for hotel options, but have you even heard of the top 10 restaurants listed for your city? In most cases there’s little overlap between the view of professional, informed, trusted critics and the TripAdvisor top 10 which lists names unlikely to be recognisable to avid foodies .
On a recent trip to Bali, at an extravagant resort bar, I was handed a card and asked to share my feedback of the experience — while I was trying to have that experience. There was the Tripadvisor logo on a card with the well-meaning waiter’s name; but this platform is all-too-easily gamed when it comes to food, and you’re unlikely to have much in common with the reviewers raving about restaurants on it. Perhaps in time people will seek out more qualified opinions for their hospitality experiences. Funny that it’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars dining out, when an equivalent amount spent on luxury goods might have you searching review sites and ratings by professionals for hours?
How many people in your social circle to trust for on-the-money recommendations? A handful, perhaps, yet the internet and its inherent anonymity conveys unearned confidence. If someone, a stranger, swears by a venue, don’t just take that tip on face value.
Ask a local. Great in theory, and their knowledge is certainly better than yours. But the implication is that any local critically knows the best restaurants to dine at, given the sheer volume of eateries in urban areas these days, just doesn’t hold up.
Concierge desks. Not all are created equal. Some are exceptional and can magic you a table at booked-out restaurants, concerts and one-off experiences. Others get kickbacks.
Instagram. I adore Instagram, but the 19th-century phrase that the camera never lies, just doesn’t fly anymore. In this PhotoShoppe, filtered world, few things are as they seem, not that it matters if it’s just a smoastworthy (smoast + social-media-boast) ‘insta-trophy’ you’re after. Savvy venues have created their snapworthy Insta-bait drinks and dishes to lure the snap happy. On the plus side this has resulted in a greater attention to detail of plating for even casual places producing a feast for the eyes — which is a legitimate part of the pleasure of dining.
Friends and acquaintances that have been. Perhaps, but I recently overheard someone suggest Bar Rouge to a friend about to travel to Shanghai. It’s a good-looking bar in a spectacular location; I certainly enjoyed visiting it in 2005. Maybe now it is iconic. Use their information as a starting point.
Bloggers. Sure there are some great blogs but how to know which to trust? Who has integrity and sycophantically praises anyone that throws them a free burger? Is the source independent, considered and informative in their description or merely giddy at the sight of the latest Nutella-injected sweet thing? And is the writing recent?
If you care about what you put in your mouth, then how do you identify and connect with the restaurants and bars that also care?
On holiday, food isn’t sustenance, or fuel you scarf to get you through to your next activity or day. Those flavours are the most visceral way to connect with the people, the city, the land and the culture. It matters. It matters for health, for sustainability and for the soul.
Trustworthy, independent and well-informed intel is always valuable and that hasn’t changed in the information age. Searching for good insider advice is easier when there’s a dearth of information rather than a plethora. We are now drowning in so-called intelligence, with no sure-fast way to sort through it.
Three ways to discover the best places to eat and drink in a new destination:
1. Tap up a contact in the hospo game in that destination.
2. Consult a friend there who digs what you dig.
3. Finally, turn to apps and guides that specialise up-to-the minute on-the-money intel.