No summer holiday is complete without delicious things to eat.
Let’s be honest. A bad meal can make or break a holiday – and we’re not talking about the kind that leaves you confined to your hotel room for 48 hours. Unappetising local specialities, poor service and crippling bills can all leave your soaring holiday spirits suddenly feeling flat. Want to avoid culinary catastrophe? These are our top tips for making meals the most memorable part of your trip.
1. Take a tour
It’s a strange but true contradiction that you often eat the worst meals in the most renowned culinary destinations. We’re talking €20 ice-creams, frozen seafood steps from the sea and English menus offered unprompted as soon as you reveal a foreign accent. While fantastic food experiences await, the challenge is finding them.
Enter a slew of companies who’ve spotted a gap in the market, running hour, day or even month-long tours. Snacking your way around a new neighbourhood with the help of a guide will fast-track your understanding of local gastronomy, and you’ll pick up plenty of restaurant tips along the way.
For starters, we’ve picked the best food tour in every state and the best food tours in Europe. If money and time are no object, you could even embark on an epic 101-day around-the-world food tour with Intrepid Travel.
2. Cook your own
The secret to Michelin-star cooking? Fresh, local ingredients. Some restaurants fly in speciality foods from around the world, but most source from nearby producers, farms and markets. Book self-catering accommodation, and all this can be yours for a fraction of the cost. You don’t even have to be a great cook: bread, cheese, cured meats and fresh fruit make the perfect dinner after a day in the sun.
If you’re staying in a hotel, plan at least one picnic lunch instead. Or if you’ve got a sweet tooth, pay a visit to a chocolatier, patisserie or sweet shop and stock up for a midnight feast. Nothing says holiday decadence like eating dulce de leche in bed.
3. Make the most of freebies
Good food needn’t be expensive – it can even be free. One of the best places to get a bargain dinner is Italy. Embrace the great Italian tradition of aperitivo by ordering a spritz or a beer around 6pm and it’ll arrive with complimentary nibbles, perhaps some focaccia or bruschetta. In France, one of the delights of restaurant meals is the basket of fresh bread that arrives as soon as you sit down, and is very rarely added to the bill.
If you’re travelling in the US, take a different approach. Here the doggy bag reigns supreme and if you order wisely your delicious dinner can double up as breakfast. Just remember, if you found your tacos difficult to eat at a table, they’re not front-seat road trip material.
4. Join a supper club
Supper clubs aren’t just hipster affairs with tiny portions and too much booze. They’ve long been a tradition in many cities, including Buenos Aires where the “secret” closed-door restaurants run by amateurs and professionals have become world-renowned. They’re a great way to meet new people, particularly if you’re older and travelling solo.
5. Pick the right time
Timing is everything, so get ready to shake up your routine. Firstly, if you’re used to all-day dining at home, don’t expect it abroad. Unless you’re in a beach resort, many restaurants open for lunch service then close all afternoon before dinner. Lunch often kicks off sharply at 12.30pm or 1pm, and if you turn up an hour later you may watch the restaurant close down around you.
Evening eating in Europe is often the biggest surprise. Arrive for dinner at 6pm and you’ll be met with raised eyebrows – and certainly not the kitchen’s best work. Late dinners are the name of the game; in Spain it’s not at all unusual to sit down to eat around 10pm. Luckily being on holiday also means embracing the great tradition of the afternoon siesta.
6. Swap dinner for breakfast
Those devoted to making dinner their main meal every day are seriously missing out. Breakfasts, lunches or brunches are often a better bet, and should certainly be part of your holiday mix. Venture away from the hotel buffet, and not only will you get more for your money but often more interesting dishes.
Think dim sum feasts in China, steaming bowls of pho in Vietnam, churros and hot chocolate in spain, spicy pans of shakshuka in the Middle East and huevos rancheros in Mexico. Then there are the drinks. Wine might be off the menu, but in its place are caffeine hits guaranteed to get your day off to a good start, from masala chai in India to traditional Turkish coffee.
7. Don’t blindly trust TripAdvisor
Do you review your favourite local cafe on TripAdvisor every time you eat there? Thought not. When you rely on review sites you’re often not getting local insight but other visitors’ opinions. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that can keep the same places at the top of the pile.
As for the accuracy of controversial online claims, remember to retain a healthy amount of scepticism. These hilarious 1-star reviews of exquisite 5-star hotels definitely provide food for thought.
8. Ask a bartender
Hospitality is a tight-knit industry and chances are if you settle in for an early martini at a quiet cocktail bar, you’ll leave with both a buzz and a handful of brilliant insider recommendations. Tip generously, and they might even call ahead to help you make a reservation if you don’t speak the language.
It goes without saying that the other secret to great meals is great service. The best way to secure it is simply to be nice to front of house staff. And above all, be appreciative and sensitive towards local culture. A few words of the local language and a bit of extra patience go a long way.
9. Go offline
Nothing interrupts a meal like having to Google menu terms you don’t understand on patchy wi-fi. Skip the hassle with the Google Translate app, which allows you to download offline dictionary files for the language of your choice. The instant translate function is particularly helpful, producing a live translation of printed text through your smartphone’s camera.
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