Don’t (blindly) trust online reviews
I spent a few years living in Rome and was always baffled with some of the top-rated restaurants on sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp. “This is the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life,” someone would write about a mediocre restaurant outside the Vatican, while my favorite (and very popular among locals) pizza spot was way down around No. 200.
But keep in mind that TripAdvisor reviews are written by tourists, not locals. Maybe it is the best pizza that person has ever had, because he’s on vacation and atmosphere matters when it comes to taste. That doesn’t mean it’s the best pizza in Rome. Reviews can help you pin down suggestions in a region, or if you have specific dietary needs or preferences, but that’s about it. If you must read, look past the stars. If someone has given a place a two-star rating because of “a misplaced fork,” or something else you know wouldn’t be an issue for you, disregard the review. Service speeds, for example, are cultural, and prone to bias. Look for reviews from locals, especially those who comment on certain dishes. “This Bolognese is as good as my grandma’s.” That’s what you’re looking for.
Don’t shy away from street food, especially when there’s a crowd
Street food is usually cheap and widely available, and can give you insight into the local food culture. Just as with hot dogs in Chicago, most people can tell you where to go. However, while street food can be delicious, it can also carry the risk of food-borne illness. Watch how its prepared and handled, and follow our tips. If you’re skeptical — either of the location or the ingredients, or in a country where food-borne illness is a common problem for travelers — don’t risk it. If you see lines of locals waiting outside a street cart though, that’s a good sign that turnover is high and food is popular and good.
At restaurants, make note of long lines of tourists waiting for the No. one rated place on TripAdvisor, but also look for crowds of locals spilling out into the streets, and eating happily at local restaurants or cafes where the lines are long before the doors even open. There are a few food experiences worth waiting for, but for the most part a comfortably crowded spot beats a long line any day.
Ask the right locals, not just any local
If you’re going to do it, let’s talk about how to do it right. Keep in mind that, especially when visiting a non-western country, American tourists will often be pointed toward the most “western” place, which also tends to be the most expensive. The intentions are often good — avoidance of funky flavors or spice, for example — but the results are often disappointing.
Instead, get specific. Ask where to try a certain type of food. This is where your preliminary research comes in. Discuss your price range and the atmosphere you’re looking for, and convince them you really, truly do want to try local dishes, regardless of ingredients. Plus, there’s always a chance you’ll get lucky and run into the local who is passionate about and really does know a lot about food, and then you’re in for a treat.