Imagine you’ve been struck with hunger pangs in an unfamiliar city, but there’s nary an internet connection or food-loving local in site. What’s a peckish traveller to do? While it’s hard to judge a restaurant by its cover, here’s our eight fail-proof signs we use when deciding whether to give that eetcafe or trattoria a pass:
1. A laminated menu in six different languages
A fisherman who casts the widest net catches the most fish. A restaurant that casts the widest net is just catering to the lowest common denominator for taste – bland food and boring preparations.
2. It serves a national cuisine, but no one of that nationality works there
Of course there are exceptions to this, but if it’s a Chinese restaurant with nary a Chinese national in sight, or a Mexican spot owned by someone who’s never eaten food cooked by an actual Mexican, then the food is probably going to be a dull shadow of whatever cuisine it’s trying to imitate.
3. It’s on a main square or right by a major attraction
Places like these don’t need to bother with good food – they coast on their location, secure in the knowledge that a steady stream of clueless tourists is going to keep their coffers overflowing. Resist! Places slightly out-of-the-way, on side streets, or in ‘cool’ neighborhoods generally have to work harder to earn their keep.
4. Or, it has the name of the closest attraction right in its name
Again, this tactic is geared towards snaring the most clueless of tourist: “I just saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Shouldn’t I eat at the Leaning Tower of Pizza?” No. No you should not.
5. It’s empty during peak hours
Of course, this only works if you know the peak hours in your city of choice. A spot with no diners at 7 in Amsterdam is a bad sign, but in Barcelona or Madrid, you’ll have to wait until 9 or 10 to judge whether a restaurant is popular with the locals.
6. A long menu, a ‘tent’ menu, or a menu stuck the table’s glass
These tips are true whether you’re travelling or staying at home – menus should be no more than two pages, maybe three. Anything over that and you’re going to be wading through a lot of dreck to find the good stuff (if the good stuff exists at all). Tent menus full of ‘specials’ and sugary drinks speak of a place that’s trying too hard, and a menu stuck under glass speaks of a place that’s not trying at all.
7. Dirt is sometimes okay, dust is never okay
We’ve eaten in some less-than-gleaming holes-in-the-wall and roadside stalls where the food has been exceptional despite the state of sanitation. But what you don’t want to see is dust. Dusty bottles, dusty glassware, dusty plastic flowers: these are all indications that the place that hasn’t had a diner in a long, long time.
8. Themes, gimmicks, and silly or sexy uniforms
Anywhere that needs to entice customers with a Space Alien Abduction Experience or a Vodka Volcano* is probably a restaurant that’s putting more thought into knick-knacks and mood lighting than food. Even worse: are the waitresses wearing crop-tops and booty shorts? This is not a restaurant. This is a strip club without any stripping. A sad affair all around.
*Okay, we’d totally go in for a Vodka Volcano.