“A good restaurant is like a vacation; it transports you, and it becomes more than just about the food.”
Restaurant Tips For Long-Term Travelers Over 50
I am not as fussy as most people regarding restaurants, and I am always willing to try new restaurants on the road. Most Fifty Plus Nomads, in my experience, are fussier than me. I am almost always satisfied with most restaurants, and I am disappointed or delighted about 10% of the time.
Yet, after fifteen years of traveling and living abroad, I have gathered many travel restaurant tips.
Please share your top travel restaurant tips in the comments below.
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 find either inflated cost, mediocre food, or inferior quality, lower-cost grub. Go a few blocks away, and the food choices will be of 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 will see a professionally prepared sign with pictures of dishes outside a restaurant. Usually, the plates in the photographs are mass-produced, frozen meals. However, remember that this often does not apply to Asian restaurants. Many of these restaurants have photos inside their menu to help foreign visitors identify and order food).
- An empty dining room during peak meal times is usually a bad sign. 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. A couple of times in my life, I have been in a place where there were two restaurants. One was full of locals; the other (usually fancier) was empty. I chose the “emptier” restaurant because I wanted a “fancier” meal. Both times, I made a big mistake. The food in the “fancier” place was terrible. When I did this at a truck stop in France with my parents, the only other diners in the restaurant 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”.
- Know when locals eat. The food is fresher, and the service is often better. In many countries like Mexico, France, Italy, and Latin America, lunch is from 1 to 4 pm, and dinner is from 7 to 10 pm In a few countries like Argentina, dinner is from 10 pm to 1 am
- Avoid eating in chain restaurants at the end of service. Some of the worse food I have ever eaten in a restaurant was at ten at night in Tony Roma’s, the Olive Garden, and Red Lobster. I even got a salad with more ice than lettuce and vegetables!
- Try table d’hòte style meals whenever possible. (Table d’hòte meals are like the “special of the day¨and usually are more than one course). In France, most restaurants have a menu (appetizer or soup, main course, dessert) for lunch. (The French call this the menu. What we call a 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 will 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. Anywhere you find Chinese people (they are obsessed with tasty 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 arrived 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 I ate at in India featured Chinese Indian fusion food.
- In much of the world, a menu is a list of what the cook and the owner think they can prepare. If you are outside 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 will find beautiful dishes that are not even on the menu.
- Look for busy restaurants serving local comfort foods from around the world. Comfort foods are usually filling, tasty, and inexpensive. In addition, since many restaurants feature comfort foods, the busy restaurants need to do a great job to continue attracting clients,
Avoiding Problems With the Restaurant Bill
- In a few countries, like Nicaragua, taxes are sometimes extra, like in the US. In most countries, however, taxes are 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).
- Eating out, in many countries, is a special event. You need to ask for the bill in restaurants, in most of the world. I usually look at the waiter and gesture like I am signing a bill. Most people take waiters bringing the bill to the table as a sign that the waiters want the customer to leave. (Waiters do not get the bill because they do not want to seem like they are rushing their clients). With time, I have come to like this tradition and sometimes am bothered when waiters in the US bring the bill to the table before I want to leave.
- Do not expect separate bills in most of the world. If you ask for separate bills, the waiters may say, ” OK ” in Latin America ” and bring you just one bill. If you insist they prepare separate bills, be prepared to wait for a long time and 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. It is considered good manners for the host to invite their friends or family to eat for special occasions in some places. The host will pay and may be offended if the guests try to pay. (In fact, in most Spanish-speaking countries, if you say you are inviting, invitar, someone out, your guests expect you to pay for the meal).
- Ask the price of drinks before you order and check your bill carefully. Occasionally, particularly in Southeast Asia, waiters will try to tack on an expensive foreign cocktail that you did not order onto your bill. 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 paid more for a bottle of water in a restaurant than a bottle of local wine or beer in Europe.
- Make sure ahead of time if you must 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 must pay a cover charge (in Italy and Portugal, for example, you typically must pay a two to three Euros cover charge (coperto in Italy) at most restaurants).
Tipping Appropriately in Restaurants Abroad
- Find out the local traditions for tipping appropriately in restaurants abroad: In some countries, like Costa Rica, if tips are not included, you are still expected to provide one unless the service is terrible. Like Italy, other countries usually do not expect tips, though some tourist restaurants add a service charge. Most guidebooks indicate the local tipping traditions.
- Waiters in countries without tipping view waiting as a career and usually are extremely knowledgeable about the menu. Waiters in these countries usually love when customers ask questions about the meal. Unlike countries with a tipping tradition, waiters will make recommendations without considering the price. They will happily suggest inexpensive wines if they think they are the best option for your meal.
- Another way to find out if tips are expected is to pay with a credit card. If there is a separate space for a tip, this usually means that tips are not customary in that country. In addition, locals will often be able to tell you about tipping traditions in your location. (In most countries where tipping is not common, 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 will leave a $20 bill and let the waiter/waitress keep the extra $1.) For more information, also read this article from Western Union
- Check to ensure that tips are not included in the bill, even if you are in a country where it is not common to have tips in the bill. After New York City passed laws requiring restaurants to pay their waiters a living wage, many restaurants started to add tips to 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).