Embrace the Transformative Power of Travel
In my new series Andrew Zimmern’s Driven by Food, I discover the street behind Main street, the off-the-grid dive and the unexpected with a local guide—from a rickshaw driver in Hyderabad to a Nashville cab driver who knows all the hidden gems in Music City. Together, we’re exploring food and culture from a whole new perspective. Looking for an authentic experience on your next trip? Here are a few of my secrets.
Go to busy places with happy people.
I have a knack for finding good restaurants when I’m on the road. It’s not because I’m a Yelp devotee or carry a fat guidebook. I simply look for the restaurant with the happiest customers and employees. Take New York City, for example. There’s a hot dog vendor on every major corner. I love a dirty water dog, but not all are created equal. I’ll walk past three dead stands to queue up for the guy who’s blasting salsa music and selling to a line of smiling customers. I know not everyone likes waiting in line for a meal, but simply put, you get what you pay for—and sometimes you pay with your time instead of cash. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Skip the concierge.
Want to end up at the biggest tourist trap in town? Ask your hotel’s concierge for a restaurant recommendation. Many hotel employees want you to experience a cookie-cutter version of their city. They recommend places that are popular and safe from a recommendation standpoint. If you truly want an authentic dining experience while traveling, talk to the valet, your cab driver, waitress or the barista at the corner coffee shop. Just ask where they like to eat or where they’d take a friend for dinner. Once on a trip to Cartagena, my wife and I went to a little fritanga down the street from our hotel that the person parking my car said he frequented. It was great. We ended up going back at least five times during that trip.
Do a little legwork.
Before you hit the road, take a few minutes to research the place you’re going. Ask for suggestions on Facebook or throw out a question to a food/travel expert on Twitter who lives in the place you are headed. You can always ask me @andrewzimmern; I try to answer as many of these as I can! And please, don’t rely on crowd-sourced sites like Yelp. Check out up-to-date trusted resources like Eater, especially their Heat Maps and Eater 38 lists, the New York Times, Travel & Leisure, or a local blogger with a large following. AndrewZimmern.com is also a fantastic resource for restaurant recommendations. I know I’m biased, but it’s true. We have lots of chef interviews listing their favorite spots.
Grab a business card from your hotel (or at least put the address in your phone) and start moving. Whether it’s on foot, in a cab, on a train or by bike, just get lost in your new surroundings. You’re sure to find awesome local spots that you never would’ve discovered had you kept your nose buried in a guidebook. Who cares if you get lost? You have your hotel’s address. Hop in a cab, show it to your driver and you’re good to go.
Eat like a local.
People constantly ask me if I get sick from all the stuff I eat. The simple answer: No. When I’m in China, I eat Chinese food. When I’m in Peru, I eat Peruvian food. I don’t eat at the familiar American chain restaurant or at, say, a Mexican restaurant in Bangalore, India. Local restaurants cater to the people who live and work in the neighborhood. A restaurant owner at a small, local establishment has much more incentive to keep customers happy—after all, he’s looking for repeat business (not to mention many guests might be friends and family!). On the flipside, a big chain restaurant or some mediocre one in your hotel rarely expects regular or repeat customers. The bar is lower and more is left to chance. Go to eat in busy places with smiling people. Sounds nuts, but that’s the best external barometer of a good meal that I’ve ever found.
Photographs courtesy of Travel Channel.