Friday, 13 May 2011

The Restaurant Rules

Originally posted by Snigdha yesterday. Lost by 'Blogger' today, hence the re-post. Not happy!

I've just come back from Thailand. I fear that I will be posting a number of articles both inspired and obsessed by my travels around that beautiful, inspired and amazing country. What I want to deal with in this post, however, is how do you choose a place to eat when travelling?

At home, it's easy. Ask your friends and family for recommendations. Log in to toptable and look at reviews. Information is reliable and readily available. Job done, as Obama would say.

But what do you do when abroad? Once upon a time, I'd buy the latest edition of the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet and I'd follow their recommendations. I must say, it often worked for me. There were the wonderfully memorable Indonesian restaurants (at both the high and low end of the spectrum) in Amsterdam that I visited with my husband and best mate Chris that stand out as magical moments of our trip to that fair city. The 'tchendol', a strange, sweet yet tart tamarindy drink we enjoyed is etched on our collective memories forevermore. In Delhi I would never have found the basic but brilliant Punjabi restaurant with huge vats of steaming curry, nor the tiny, rustic but packed Paratha place in 'Paratha Wale Gale' just off Chandni Chowk. So guidebooks have their uses.

Picture: Paratha at Paratha Wale Gale, Delhi, India.

However, a book is only as reliable as often as it is updated and I clearly remember trying to find a restaurant in Phuket 11 years ago which was recommended by Lonely Planet and was a less than happy experience.... Picture the scene: at 7:30 we decide to make our way to said restaurant, not quite realising how far away from the hotel it actually is.... in the meantime gets dark. Then it starts to rain. Torrentially. But we have no umbrella. Then we come to a wooden slatted foot bridge. With steps missing. We cross, but it's all a bit too 'Indiana Jones' for my liking. After much stress and worry about imminent loss of life, we come to the exact address stated in the book after a further half an hour of searching. No restaurant. What is going on? We got back to our hotel and decide to call said restaurant – they closed a year ago! A scary experience where not once I thought that both myself and my tiny LED torch would fall steeply into the river below!

And that is not the only occupational hazard. Chefs leave, service declines. In fact, it's a pretty good rule of thumb that as soon as a restaurant gets recommended by a mainstream guide book that the staff will rest on their laurels and the quality will decline. This happened particularly with 2 restaurants in Jaipur who ought to know better (and I will not name!).

So how do you work out where to eat when travelling further afield? I have two rules, one which comes from my own experience and the other from a lovely man I met in pottery class once called John (AKA Pottery John). Thanks, John – you are a star!
  1. The locals test
Work out who the indigenous people are wherever you are. Where they eat will be pretty damn good. After all, whether lunch or dinner, they wouldn't keep coming back to some tourist place with poor food and bad service day after day. So, regardless of your snobbery, if you are in Venice and you see some gondoliers or boat builders eating in a trattoria – chances are it's pretty good. Similarly, if you are in Chinatown in London and you see people who are Chinese eating there, you have similarly struck gold. Don't fret about the surroundings, in fact ignore them if they are modest or even scruffy – if the indigenous eat there you aren't going to get a bad meal.

Picture: The Locals Test in action: Sabung-Gha, Chiang Rai, Thailand
  1. Don't worried about the food taking time to arrive
We have all been spoiled by places which get food to us within minutes of taking our order. It has lulled us into the philosophy of instant gratification, which if we are honest, does not and should not exist in real life. Posh restaurants have all sorts of 'cheats' to ensure you are not left waiting too long for your food; ingredients prepared and piled high in large plastic containers, risottos part cooked and just waiting to be finished off as they are ordered (see Marco Pierre White's book Wild Food From Land and Sea to find how they manage this). But really authentic food, if prepared with the love and care that you wish for, will take time. Sometimes that means from 15 mins to 30 mins. Just make sure you go out before you get to that starving hungry stage and enjoy the results. And don’t complain to the staff that you’ve been waiting for ages, or they’ll conclude you favour microwave meals that you just prick and ping.

  1. The tablecloth rule (with thanks to Pottery John)
To cater for Western European tourists, restaurants feel they must give that 'cultured' presentation; posh cutlery, candles and most importantly, linen tablecloths. These can only be used the once and then have to be sent to be laundered. The extra cost of their being laundered is then passed back to the customer, of course. This is something the indigenous local neither values nor wishes to pay for – they seek only the quality and authenticity of the food. So if you find a restaurant with posh linen, chances are it is only there to entice tourists into eating in their establishment. Therefore, no tablecloth (or a wipe clean plastic tablecloth) will usually be a sign of good, honest unpretentious food. Of course this rule doesn’t apply to a fine dining restaurant – but as with all rules there are always exceptions.

Picture: The tablecloth rule in action, Cambodia.

These rules have stood us in very good stead in places as diverse as Italy, India, Cambodia, Thailand and France (among others). Maybe they will work for you. What are your rules? Do they work? Let me know....

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