How to find the best meals on holiday
Skipping sightseeing to check restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor? Put the phone down
Thanks to the internet, we have never had so much access to information about restaurants. Photograph: iStock
Eating out on holiday is considered a treat. And on one level, it is. You have enough cash to blow on a plate of pasta puttanesca that tastes the same as the one you make at home, but is slightly superior because you are eating it while wearing perfume in an artfully dilapidated alleyway. That’s not something to sniff at.
Ultimately, however, while there may be a small number of eerily well-adjusted weirdos who disagree, for the rest of us dining out while away spells meltdown: skipping sightseeing to obsess over TripAdvisor reviews; arguing with holiday companions over whose dietary preferences should take priority; wasting hours trying to locate a joint that suits both your pescatarian girlfriend and your raging carnivore of a dad.
Difficulties are compounded by the modern world. Thanks to the internet, we have never had so much access to information about restaurants ahead of booking. As a fussy vegetarian with an Instagram dependency and a perfectionist streak, the perils of eating out on holiday are my speciality. So here’s how to navigate them so you don’t wreck your summer or anyone else’s.
It is understandable. You want your break to be perfect; you have been grafting for it all year. And no one wants to end up in a tourist trap. But there comes a point when researching cool restaurants so you don’t ruin your holiday tips into, well . . . ruining your holiday by researching cool restaurants.
Are you several posts deep in the Instagram profile of a schoolfriend you haven’t seen for 20 years, frowning at a geotagged shot of a San Sebastian pintxos bar? This is not the holiday spirit. Nor is forcing your partner on a city-wide march to locate an “off-the-radar” gelateria that may or may not have closed in 2017.
Such behaviour is familiar to clinical psychologist Linda Blair. “We work so hard nowadays, and we tend to get a skewed impression of how things are meant to be because of social media only showing the good stuff,” she says. “The combination is lethal.” To combat fretting over insignificant choices, she recommends doing a real-life recce. And being spontaneous. “If you just walk in, there’ll be a more accurate match between what you expect and what you get.”
But do some planning
There is spontaneity. And then there is refusing to even contemplate dinner until 9pm, at which point – suddenly and intensely mad with hunger – you leap off your sunbed, force your mates to sprint into town and collapse in the first place that appears to have an oven. Someone in your party has been saving up for a special dinner. Put a smidgeon of thought into it.
Burger lukewarm? Moussaka underseasoned? Celebrate it, says Blair. “Success and perfection is a little bit tedious. It’s the ones that go wrong that make the great stories.”
Watch your research materials
You have decided on a seafood joint in Bordeaux. But, hang on: TripAdvisor relays the unhappy tidings that Jane from Newton Abbott deemed the mussels overpriced. Back to square one. Food critic Jimi Famurewa advises taking a step back from the site if you are prone to such dithering. “It’s a weird Rorschach test where people see what they want to see.” He recommends alternative guides such as Eater and The Infatuation. “They champion smaller, humbler places that are beyond the overhyped ones with queues.”
Make (good) conversation
Congratulations! You have finally found a restaurant. Do not spoil this evening by bullying companions into planning how you will spend the next.
Find somewhere to sit
You are on the hunt for a lunchtime picnic spot. A-ha, that doorway up ahead with a spotless front step looks charming. Unfortunately, it is also the vestibule of a bakery – and, crucially, not the one where you bought your food. This means you cannot, under any circumstances, camp out there with your flaky spanakopita. Find somewhere else. In Florence last year tourists clogging up the area around panini favourite All’Antico Vinaio became such a problem, the city’s council outlawed eating nearby.
Snacking in the street is appealingly cost-savvy, but Georgette Jupe, who blogs as Girl in Florence, points out that a bit of Googling will throw up “cheap eats with seats”. Researching parks with picnic tables and squares with benches also doesn’t hurt, she says. “It might not be as easy as just standing outside the place you bought your sandwich, but having respect for the destination goes a long way with residents.”
Don’t snub fellow tourists
Three times! That’s the number of occasions already you have awkwardly bumped into your holiday doppelgangers. (She has your skirt; your boyfriends sport similar glasses; they too are fiercely gripping their Lonely Planet guides.) First: on the 7.10am flight. Second: in Bologna’s most zeitgeisty restaurant (seriously, what were the chances?) And now they are enjoying an identical aperitivo order to yours (2 x Aperol Spritz and some crisps – niche, right?) at the adjacent table. It is tempting to shun them. Not only do they out you as unoriginal. (Without them, no one would have clocked a thing!) But smile. Make small talk. At the very least, you can co-ordinate itineraries so you never run into each other again.
Ditch your phone
It is fine to take a few snaps of the dishes as they arrive, or of loved ones tipsily enjoying the meal. But rearranging tables, fretting over lighting and separating someone from their Riesling so it can be used to “add balance” to the shot are all unacceptable.
Or travel solo
“It truly is the best way,” says food writer Martha de Lacey. “Not only do you get to spend as long as you like shifting plates about, but you also get to order whatever you like. Win, win.”
If you buy it, eat it
It is an injustice of the highest level to order a selection of goodies to the value of about five times what the person next to you can afford, ruin their meal with your expansive photoshoot of the spread, and then piss off without taking more than a few bites. They will be consumed by food envy – and then shame as they weigh up the etiquette of scarfing the leftovers. To the duo who did this to me in Sicily last year: the cannoli weren’t as nice as they looked.
Unless you have a serious allergy or intolerance, do not expect small local restaurants to cater for your dietary preferences, says De Lacey. So, if butter freaks you out, or anchovies conjure harrowing childhood memories . . . hard luck. “Sure, ask what a dish contains,” she says. “But remember that many Spanish restaurants don’t consider ‘jamon’ to be meat, and many places in Japan use fish products in absolutely everything.” Solidarity, fellow vegetarians.
Stick to a budget
On group holidays, the person with the lowest budget gets final veto. Only a sociopath would object. Obviously, don’t stage whisper “Is that all right with you?” to your hard-up friend every time your posse drifts towards a potential spot. Just don’t explode when it emerges that not everyone fancies spending €18 on a single prawn.
Without appropriate planning, summer cheer can abruptly curdle into hunger-induced fury. Sure, join that massive queue for a trendy new opening. But – and I cannot stress this enough – take provisions. A sack of Haribo, say. Or a crate of cereal bars. After all, eating on holiday may be a joy, but it is also an endurance test.–Guardian