How to Find the Right Restaurant, Avoid Problems with the Bill, and Tip Appropriately
¨A good restaurant is like a vacation; it transports you, and it becomes a lot more than just about the food.¨
I am not as fussy as most people when it comes to restaurants. I am always willing to try new restaurants on the road. I am almost always fairly happy with most restaurants. I find about 10% of the time I am very disappointed or delighted. Most Fifty-Plus Nomads, in my experience, are fussier than me.
Finding the Right Restaurant for You
- Avoid eating where a lot of tourists congregate. Yes, you will find multilingual menus and waiters. However, you will usually also find either high cost, mediocre food or poor quality, lower-cost grub. Go a few blocks away, and the food choices will be a better value. Or better yet seek out places listed in guidebooks, walk around looking for busy restaurants with many locals, or ask any locals you meet for suggestions. (Note: in many of these restaurants, you’ll see a professionally prepared sign with pictures of dishes outside a restaurant. Usually, this means that the plates in the photographs are probably mass-produced, frozen meals. Keep in mind, however, that this often doesn’t apply to Asian restaurants. Many of these restaurants have photos inside their menu to help foreigner visitors identify and order food).
- Generally, it is better to eat in places with a lot of locals. Eating at places that are not busy can be OK if it is not a busy time for restaurants or if you have heard positive reviews of a restaurant beforehand. However, it is generally better to eat where and when others eat. (In many countries like Mexico, France, Italy, and most of Latin America, lunch is from 1 to 4 and dinner 7 to 10. In a few countries like Argentina, dinner is 10 p.m.-1 a.m.). A couple times in my life, I have been in a place where there were two restaurants. One was full with locals; the other (usually fancier) was empty. Both times, I chose the ¨emptier¨ restaurant because I wanted a ¨fancier¨ meal. Both of these times, I made a big mistake. The food in the ¨fancier¨ place was terrible. In fact, when I did this at a truck stop in France with my parents, the only other diners in the restaurant actually apologized to us (in English) for the bad food, saying ¨We hope you don´t think this is typical French food. Most of our food is much better than what we just ate here¨.
- Try table d’hote style meals whenever possible. In France, most restaurants have a menu (appetizer or soup, main course, dessert) for lunch. (The French call this the menu. What we call menu, in French is la carte). In much of Latin America, busy lunch places offer a comida corrida (a running lunch). The food is quickly prepared and presented and thus usually quite safe to eat. Even if you visit a fancy restaurant, you’ll find these meals for less than the price of a typical entrée. The Costa Rican equivalent – called a “Casado” or married man special – features rice, beans, vegetables, fried plantains, and stewed meats.
- Go where people of the nationality featured in the restaurant hang out. Almost anywhere you find Chinese people (they are obsessed with good food) will have the best Chinese food in town. One of the best Mexican restaurants I ever ate at was a small Mexican fish restaurant in Chicago. I went there after a tour of the Pilsen neighborhood (an area that in the 1900s was all Czech, but today is half Puerto Rican and half Mexican) with a group of college students. I knew it would be great when we got there and discovered that no one spoke English and the place did not even have an English language menu!
- Don´t be afraid to try food from outside your destination. Some of the best restaurants where I ate in India featured Chinese-Indian fusion food.
- In much of the world, a menu in a restaurant is merely a list of what the cook and the owner think that they can prepare. If you are outside of the tourist areas, ask the waiter “what is there, today?” (in Spanish, que hay?). Don’t be afraid to ask them, “what do you recommend?” Many times, they will answer honestly. Often, you’ll find wonderful dishes that aren’t even on the menu.
Avoid Problems When Paying Your Restaurant Bill and Tipping Advice
- In a few countries, like Nicaragua, taxes are sometimes extra, like in the US. In most countries, however, taxes are not included in the bill. (In Mexico, some restaurants include taxes in the prices on the menu, called IVA; most, however, do not. You will usually see a note about this on the menu).
- You need to ask for the bill in restaurants, in most of the world. I usually look at the waiter and make a gesture like I am signing a bill. Eating out, in many countries, is a special event. Most people take waiters bringing the bill to the table as a sign that the waiters want the customer to leave. (Waiters do not bring the bill because they don’t want to seem like they are rushing their clients). With time, I have come to like this tradition and sometimes am a bit bothered when waiters in the US bring the bill to the table before I want to leave.
- Don’t expect separate bills in most of the world. If you ask for separate bills, the waiters may (this is the case in Latin America) say Ok and then bring you just one bill. If you insist that they prepare separate bills, be prepared to wait for a long time and to have a bill filled with mistakes. I am amazed at how often I have had problems with this while dining with my fellow Americans in Mexico.
- Ask the price of drinks before you order and check your bill carefully. Occasionally, particularly in Southeast Asia, waiters will try to tack an expensive foreign cocktail that you did not order onto your bill. Other times, they will ask you if you want to order water, for example, and then add a gigantic charge for the water to your bill. I have frequently in Europe paid more for a bottle of water in a restaurant than a bottle of local wine or beer.
- Make sure ahead of time if you have to pay extra for rice, bread, or a cover charge before your order. Once at a Chinese restaurant in Gdansk, Poland I spent more on rice than the rest of the meal (including soup and dessert)! Also, in many countries, you have to pay a cover charge (in Italy and Portugal, for example, you typically have to pay a two to three Euros cover charge (coperto in Italy) at most restaurants).
- Find out what the local tipping traditions are like in your destination. In some countries, like Costa Rica, if tips are not included on the bill, you are still expected to provide one, unless the service is terrible. In other countries, like Italy, tips are usually not expected, though some tourist restaurants do add a service charge. Most guidebooks indicate the local traditions. Another way to find out if tips are included in a bill is to pay with a credit card. If there is a separate space for a tip, this usually means that tips are not included. In addition, locals will often be able to tell you about tipping traditions in your location. (In most countries without tipping, you still should leave a small amount if you like the service. Usually, this extra tip is equivalent to 2-5% of the bill. Most commonly people “round up” the tip. In other words, if the bill was $19.00, they’ll leave a $20 bill and let the waiter/waitress keep the extra $1.) For more information, also read this article from Conde Nast Traveler. (Note: the article is from 2008, some of the advice may be a bit outdated).
- Check to make sure that tips are not included in the bill even if you are in a country where it is not common to include tips in the bill. After New York City passed laws requiring restaurants to pay their waiters a living wage, many restaurants started to add the tips onto the bills. In some places in Latin America, waiters will add a tip to the bill if they think the diners are from Europe. (Many European countries do not have a tradition of tipping).
Some Additional Food-Related Posts
- Top 7 Budget Travel Food TipsSome of my favorite food-related experiences were also very inexpensive. Sometimes, modest hole in the walls restaurants, kiosks, and street carts can feature some of the country’s best chefs.
- 12 Top Restaurant TipsHere are the Fifty Plus Nomad’s top twelve tips for finding a good restaurant, avoiding problems with your bill, and tipping appropriately.
- Top 11 Food Safety TipsNothing can ruin your Fifty-Plus Nomad adventures faster than diarrhea, parasite, or other food-borne illness. Read here to discover 11 tips to avoid food safety problems. Hopefully, like me, you’ll find that you have fewer food-related problems as you travel for more time.
- 24 Top Food Tips for TravelersDiscover tons of tips for finding authentic food while traveling. Learn about some of my favorite dishes and drinks.