Maybe we’ve watched too many episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s “24 Hours to Hell and Back”.
The idea of dirty kitchens, fighting owners and chefs, unsanitary food handling, and dead mice in toasters is enough to turn anyone off eating in restaurants.
Unfortunately we don’t have the budget for Michelin star fare, so we’ve had to find ways to find restaurants that deliver value, taste, service and safe eating.
The easiest and most basic rule we follow is “trust your gut”. If the dining room looks dingy (or worse, actually dusty or dirty) the kitchen is probably no better. If your greeting is lukewarm, the manager and kitchen staff likely aren’t passionate either. Turn around and find somewhere else to eat. (Sidebar: Those same rules apply to hair and nail salons!)
TripAdvisor is a standard go-to website for me at home and away. To find out whether it will work well for you, look at their reviews for places you know you like….or know you don’t. If the majority of reviews jive with what you experienced, it will likely work as a resource for you. Reviews on TripAdvisor – and the recommendation of the HolidayInnExpress front desk clerk – took us to Center Street Grill in Enola, Pennsylvania, packed with local folks, where a terrific front of house manager squeezed us in so I could enjoy the chef’s daily special – which turned out to be crispy pork belly with an apple based glaze and softly fried egg, over sweet potato hash …. absolutely amazing!
Talking to local residents really helps. Some of our best experiences have come from chatting in the local grocery store lineup. That’s how we found great wings at Boardwalk Billy’s in North Myrtle Beach, fantastic burgers (and maybe the best and biggest onion rings we’ve ever eaten) at River City Cafe in South Carolina, and first discovered Lambrusco wine with our homestyle Italian food at Sal’s by Victor in Williamsburg Virginia many years ago.
We look for places off the beaten tourist path that are busy. A place that can attract repeat local customers is doing something right. The Stadtcafe in Vienna’s business district was full of local office workers on their lunch break and turned out to have some of the best coffee and cake in the city. Croissants Bistro & Bakery in residential Myrtle Beach needed reservations for Sunday lunch, but was well worth it. Horst Gasthaus was like walking into a pub in Bavaria, only hidden on a side street in North Myrtle. Jonny’s Cookhouse in Berwick, Nova Scotia still ranks in the top 5 of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten.
Sometimes a coupon in the local paper will entice us to try someplace new. When both the parking lot and the tables are full when we arrive, that’s a good sign. A coupon is how we found Villa Tuscanna (yup, really spelled that way) and some of the best tiramisu I’ve ever had in a restaurant.
Look for open kitchens. There’s nowhere to hide sloppy cooking practices when everyone can see into the food prep space.
We’ve learned that small menus are a good thing. A small to mid-sized restaurant simply can’t make everything on a huge menu fresh every day. If I wanted frozen or microwaved, I wouldn’t be paying to eat out. Fish & Sips in Collingwood is a great example of a limited specialized menu that hits the mark every time with perfect fish and chips.
Carambola in Hudson, Quebec is perfection on all counts: loved by locals, small but innovative seasonal menu, open kitchen, great personal service.
And then there are chains. We love to support locally owned businesses, but we acknowledge that franchisees are local folks too!
We really like Carrabbas, a mid-range Italian chain with an open kitchen, which is a cut above Olive Garden. The food and service have been consistently good whether we were in South Carolina, Florida or Tennessee. Abuelo’s (an always busy Mexican place with the bonus of great ambience) is another of our favourites. Both chains have weekly specials and loyalty programs that allow us to earn free meals. We can often stretch our restaurant dollars by watching for specials on their gift cards; a bonus $10 on $50 ALMOST makes up for our currency exchange! (Check out the local Costco for 20 – 25% discounted gift cards too.)
On the road, a chain can be a welcome site: familiar food and prices can take the stress out of meal stops en route to our next destination. SubWay is Ted’s favourite lunch stop; fresh, fast and customizable. McDonald’s, for all its negative reputation for high calorie/low nutrition foods, is a dependable breakfast place: decent coffee, and an Egg McMuffin with just 290 calories has a dose of protein to start the day. (Side note: McDonalds bathrooms are almost universally clean!) If we don’t have time to research the local dinner scene, most U.S. towns big enough to have a chain hotel will also have a sports pub, a pizza place and a chain restaurant or two. Given the option, we’d probably choose something like a Ruby Tuesday with its well stocked salad bar.
All this writing about food has made me hungry.
Off to check the fridge and see whether it is an “in” or “out” night chez Brooks.