6 foolproof rules for finding the best restaurants on the road

6 foolproof rules for finding the best restaurants on the road

Do not plan, do not resist reptiles, do not be stupid, but do talk to unlikely characters
"Have you tried Hard Rock Cafe yet? It's that way."

The aircraft touches down in strange latitudes, the shuttle drops you at your hotel, you close the door behind you, take a breath and wonder, “Now where should I go to eat?”

Museums, ancient ruins, business meetings, looking at monkeys, dolphins or weird bugs -- all that can wait. Traveling these days is almost as much about what you ate as what you did while you were away.

And while there’s no way to guarantee three life-changing meals a day, there are some ways to up your odds of finding the good stuff while on the road.

Here are some rules that have served me well across more than a decade as a food writer and itinerant restaurant critic needing to find my bearings fast in new cities without getting poisoned, wasting time or growing bored.

This is not advice for the timid, the picky or travelers satisfied with what is near at hand. If you’re feeling adventurous, and don’t mind talking to prostitutes about goat meat, we can start with …

Rule no. 1: Leave your hotel

strippers, escorts and working girls have never steered me wrong when it comes to finding a good meal in a strange town at two in the morning

The reason this is the first rule is because it is the whole ballgame, really. You must actually get up on your feet and move.

If you don’t leave the hotel, none of these other rules matter. If you don’t leave the hotel, you and I have nothing else to say to each other. You have to get out of the cocoon. It’s as simple as that. 

Are there exceptions to this rule for truly amazing hotel restaurants? Absolutely not.

I don’t care if you’re staying at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Alain Ducasse himself is downstairs at Le Louis XV handing out free corn dogs.

First, explore. Get lost. Eat. Experience. Then, later, maybe you can have a Ducasse Dog. But first, you’ve got to earn it.

Rule no. 2: Technology is stupid

No matter how much money you spend on gadgets and technology, no matter how much time you waste poring over online reviews and the blathering of other travelers who have gone before you, it’s a guarantee that the one “local favorite” restaurant you’re most looking forward to visiting will have been recently smashed by a freak cyclone, closed down by the local equivalent of the health department or sold to the former owner’s idiot cousin who re-opened it as a combination discotheque and sushi bar. Yesterday.

There’s a three-step process I use for getting immediately and intimately acquainted with any new city.   

Step 1) Walk. Since someone with no fixed destination can’t ever get lost, it doesn’t matter where you aim. When you get hungry ...

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be enjoying this. I'll check online to see what other people say.

Step 2) Stop and look around. See where fate and the Brownian motion of the perpetually dispossessed has brought you. With any luck, you will find yourself with some bar or restaurant close by. If not, you haven’t walked far enough.

Pick a door and walk through. Have a bite. Lift a pint or two.

Do exercise some basic precautions (don’t eat in any restaurant where you’re the only customer, drink bottled water, don’t eat tacos in Eastern Europe -- commonsense stuff).

But remember that no matter where you find yourself, it’s someone’s neighborhood restaurant. Eat what they’re eating. Drink what they’re drinking. And once you’ve gotten your wind back …

Step 3) Walk some more. If you’re good, you can keep this up for hours, grazing your way through wherever you’ve found yourself, discovering restaurants in real-time rather than virtually and collecting interesting stories about the ways people prepare soup or dumplings or goat tongues.

A good goat tongue story? That’s worth something. No one has ever told an interesting story about a Chicken McNugget.

Rule no. 3: OK, technology is mostly stupid

This is really more of an addendum to the second rule. Technology does have a place in adventure eating, but it is a very small and discreet one.

For example, speaking as a man who once had to abandon a fair amount of luggage after forgetting the address, general location and even the name of the hotel where I was staying, having a cell phone picture of your place of lodging can be a handy way to get home when you find yourself in a city filled with cabbies who don’t speak your language.

Also, GPS maps can be the greatest thing in the world when that whole “a man with no destination can’t ever get lost” thing goes sideways on you and you find yourself in some place that you want to get out of in a hurry.

Rule no. 4: Hookers, cops and cabbies

This is a variation on the classic “find local experts” rule espoused by so many other travel writers.

If you happen to have at your disposal some native guide who really knows where to find the best momo, kitfo or Hainanese chicken rice then by all means use him or her.

Provided that expert is not the concierge at your hotel, because those people are almost always useless, on the take or psychopathically convinced that you need to eat at the nearest Hard Rock Café; and often all of the above.

The best local experts to hit up are those people who, by trade, have to become closely acquainted with the streets.

Cab drivers tend to take their meals all together, clustering at those restaurants that best represent the cuisines of whichever country they arrived from last week. Retail employees will always know the best places for a cheap lunch within 500 meters of their place of employment.

And not for nothing, but strippers, escorts and working girls have never steered me wrong when it comes to finding a good meal in a strange town at two in the morning.

Rule no. 5: Look for crowds

A good sign: Crowds outside an eatery and nothing is being handed out for free.This one is obvious: Look for crowds. But not crowds that look like you.

Not hordes of smelly backpackers trying to score cheap tofu, business travelers mobbing some Americanesque steakhouse or gaggle of international foodies cramming into whatever “secret” noodle shop or hot tapas bar they’ve just been told is the Next Big Thing.

Look for lines of locals and trace them back to their source, or for those places where the bodies are packed so tight that they’re pressed up against the glass and spilling out the door.

Busy equals "worth it" almost every time. 

Rule do. 6: Always drink the snake wine

Once upon a time, I was researching Vietnamese restaurants in Denver, Colorado. I’d found the right neighborhood and all the right places.

I’d walked the blocks of Little Saigon and talked to the street creatures, followed the crowds and found the perfect place. It had everything -- great food, a long history, a charmingly weird owner, problems with organized crime. In short, a food writer’s dream restaurant.

But for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get a handle on the place. I went back twice, then three times, then four. Over the course of a month, I probably had a dozen meals in the luxe-gone-shabby dining room, but just didn’t feel like I’d gotten its measure.

Then one night, I’m there late eating my bun bo Hue and soft-shell crabs while the rest of the dining room emptied around me. I look up and the bar is full of laughing servers and skinny dudes in short-sleeve dishwashers jackets with grill scars on their arms, all hanging out and having a couple of shift drinks.

The owner is there, too. And having seen me haunting his floor night after night, he must’ve thought of me as a regular because now he’s coming over to my table, inviting me up to the bar, opening a fresh beer for me and asking me how I’d liked my dinner.

For a half-hour, an hour, I hang out at the bar with the cooks and the waitresses, just talking and laughing and having a good time.

I get involved in a conversation, carried out in broken English and Vietnamese, about Vietnam and whether I’d been or not (I hadn’t), and then the cooks are telling me that when I do go, I have to go to this town and this street where an uncle or a cousin still lives who will take care of me and show me the best places for banh mi and vit roti.

I’m having a great time.

As the nurse always says, "This will just sting a little."

And then the owner is behind the bar. He’s reaching up to a high shelf and pulling down a glass bottle filled with yellowish liquid. In the bottom, there’s a whole snake. Not a big snake, but still … a snake.

Shot glasses. Laughter that has suddenly taken on a hard edge. The owner pours. Not just for me, but for himself and the cooks. He slops a little on the bar and it smells like death. Like some kind of industrial solvent meant for stripping the rust off boats.

“Snake wine,” he says. Picks up his glass. Waits.

I take the shot. So does everyone else. There is much cheering and laughter. Equal amounts of coughing and swearing. The bottle was full of Vietnamese moonshine (plus a snake) that burns like pure ethanol going down and tastes like drinking liquid fire (plus a little snake).

This particular bottle of snake wine had come all the way from Vietnam, from someone’s family. It was something special, not generally shared, but we were all having such a good time …

Always drink the snake wine. It means always take what’s offered, always eat (or drink) it all, and always, always say thank you when you’re done.

In the moment when the pig’s head or the grilled mouse or the unmarked jug of ruckus juice is laid before you, it does not matter if you’re  a card-carrying vegan, a Mormon or a timid eater.

You man up, grab a fork and dig in like it is the best thing you’ve ever tasted in your life because, really, this is the thing you’ve been waiting for and hoping for through all those meals in all those strange places, isn’t it?

An instant of honest contact, of camaraderie over dinner and being treated like you belong. Food, in these moments, is the way that people speak when they have no language in common.

One taste, one plate, one glass of snake wine, all saying the same thing: “This is who we are and this is what we love. We’re so glad you finally showed up.”

Jason Sheehan is a former chef and current food editor at Philadelphia magazine. He was given a James Beard Award and his work has appeared in the Daily Beast, Cooking Light and Best Food Writing. His mom still thinks he should have been an orthodontist.

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