Europe for Foodies: Finding the Best Restaurants with Cameron Hewitt | Rick Steves Travel Talks

Europe for Foodies: Finding the Best Restaurants with Cameron Hewitt | Rick Steves Travel Talks


Let’s talk about some
practical skills for how to find great restaurants
when you’re in Europe. There’s a few things that you want
to look for and I would say it is really worth going to a little
effort to find a good restaurant. I see every meal in
Europe as an opportunity to have a great dining experience. Now that’s a really high bar
and sometimes I’m willing to lower my bar and settle
for just some basic food because I need a
functional meal on-the-go but I sort of consider
it a fun scavenger hunt. Every meal should have a
memory attached to it. You know what? It doesn’t take a lot
of effort to make sure that you find a great memorable
restaurant like this one. If you don’t put any
effort into it you’ll wind up at a place that’s just okay. Here are a few tips I would have for finding great restaurants in Europe. One of them is get away
from the main tourist zones, especially the
restaurant row. A lot of popular cities in
Europe have one street where all the restaurants
are located. In Brussels they have their
Ruutu Buffet which is lined with lots of
interchangeable restaurants and there is a salesperson
out front each one trying to get you
in to have a table. Every place serves identical buckets of mussels and beer and so forth. If you walk just a few steps
off the main drag you’re going to find something a
little more interesting. In Dubrovnik in Croatia,
a city I go to a lot, they have a restaurant
row that’s very similar to the one in Brussels —
people waiting out front trying to lure you in
with flashy menus. In Croatia in Dubrovnik, you can walk along this restaurant
row on the right or you can climb the
staircase on the left and literally less than a five-minute walk away you can find a beautiful secluded little corner restaurant or cafe with half the prices, twice as good food, and much friendlier people. This sounds almost
so obvious it isn’t worth saying but it really strikes me after spending years
and years looking for good restaurants
for our guidebooks, it’s so easy to find
a good restaurant that’s very close to a
very bad restaurant. One of my tips for
finding good restaurants, in addition to just going off to the little back corners —
figure out what the trendy neighborhood is in that city. In the city of Athens for
example, all the tourists are concentrated in the
neighborhood called the Plaka. This is the kind of old
town of Athens at the base of the Acropolis
and there are some good restaurants in the
Plaka but they tend to be very expensive
and quite touristy. Literally, across the
street from the Plaka, a five-minute walk away is a
neighborhood called Sidi. Now Sidi was kind of a rundown
deserted slum as recently as 10 or 15 years ago but now
Sidi is coming back to life. The government has undertaken
policies to make it very attractive for hotels and
restaurants to open up there. Sidi is the neighborhood
in Athens where all of the young Athenians go to eat. If you go to Sidi you’re
going to find a really a more creative array of
choices than in the Plaka. Often much cheaper, better
quality food, friendlier service, and it’ll feel like
a more local experience. Every city in Europe has a trendy
foodie hipster neighborhood and I make it a challenge when I’m going
to a new city, I’m going to look around a little bit and figure out
what that neighborhood is because I think that’s where I’m going
to find some good restaurants. Another tip for finding a good
restaurant generally, a good sign is if a place is a small kind of
family-run mom and pop restaurant. We love mom and pop restaurants
in our guidebooks. They often are pretty traditional
but they offer great quality, they offer a real loving care and interest in the food that they’re cooking. This is one of our favorite
restaurants in Croatia. We take our Croatia
tourists here in fact. Ulma does all the cooking over an
open fire and her husband Anton does the front of house management
and sort of waits tables. They have a bare-bones staff,
it’s really just the two of them and a couple of helpers that keeps
their costs low which means that my costs are low and it means
that the people making the food have been doing this for years
and they really care about it. They have a passion for it,
they’re not just somebody who’s got a minimum wage job that
they’re coming and going from. Another thing to look for that’s
a mark of a good restaurant is a menu that is short,
handwritten, and in one language. Now, why is that important — short, handwritten, and one language? It’s short because the
restauranteur wants to do a few things and
do them very well. I am very suspicious
of a very long menu. If a menu is more than two pages long I assume it’s a terrible restaurant. Now that seems harsh but think about it, how many frozen ingredients you have to have to have a 10-page
long menu? Short is a virtue. Handwritten because it’s
based on what is in season. It’s based on what’s fresh. It’s based on what they
found in the market today. It’s in one language because
it’s catering to local people. It’s not catering to
one-time tourists who are just passing through, it’s catering to people who they want to
develop into a returning clientele. Those are the three magic
features of a great restaurant — a menu that is short,
handwritten, and in one language. Now, all of that said I
really prioritize the quality of the food and
the quality experience in my restaurant hunting
but I am at times willing to compromise to have
a beautiful setting. Don’t rule that out, if you want the best food all the time sometimes you’re going to have to settle for places that are a
little less memorable. If you’re really interested
in a great experience in a beautiful setting it can be
worth paying a little too much. This is the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia. I spend a lot of time there. Every morning for
breakfast you’re going to find me at these tables right here on the main drag where
they have decent coffee and mediocre ham and eggs. I’m not here for the food
but this is my favorite place to start my day
in Dubrovnik and I’m willing to sacrifice on
quality and pay a bit more because I get to
watch the city waking up. I get to see the delivery
people coming through on their little carts before
all the tourists arrive. You see the first of the
cruise ship passengers walking in at the gate
at the far end of town. I’m willing to trade a little
bit on quality and price if I can have a memorable setting
and a memorable location. Here’s a good tip for
that by the way. You don’t necessarily have to have your whole meal, it’s a big investment maybe to have your whole meal in
a place with a beautiful setting. I think a good strategy is to
have overpriced drinks but really memorable drinks before or after
dinner in a really beautiful setting and then you can find
something a little less more affordable or a little less touristy maybe for your actual meal. In Prague for example,
there’s a beautiful hotel right on the main square and it has this gorgeous
terrace with views overlooking the Old Town Square. In Florence, there’s a hotel
that I really like that has a top floor cafe and you can
go here right after work. For about €18 you can buy
a cocktail — that’s a lot for a cocktail but it’s
a cocktail with this gorgeous view looking out
over the Ponte Vecchio in the hills of Florence
and the Arno River. By the way, that cocktail comes with a little mini buffet of snacks. If you’re discreet about it
you can almost assemble a light dinner and a cocktail,
and beautiful views for €18. Like I said, you don’t have
to be spending a lot of money to be a foodie, there are
ways to get around that. These days rooftop bars are
popular all over Europe. Budapest for example, one of
my favorite cities in Hungary has a gorgeous rooftop bar
culture with great views and it’s where all the young
urbanites go to hang out after work before they go find and
affordable dinner somewhere. I want to emphasize if you
really want to get great restaurants it’s really
worth doing your homework. There are lots of pubs in
Britain that serve pretty forgettable pub grub but you
know what, if you do a little bit of homework and you think
carefully about it and do some research you’re
going to find a gastropub. This is a pub that serves a
little bit higher quality food. It puts more emphasis
on its food and less emphasis on its beer
maybe, or equal measures. Do your homework and you’re
going to find a better meal. How do you do your homework? Well, obviously as a guidebook author I think guidebooks
are a great place to start. I spend a lot of my time
working on a Rick Steves guidebook specifically
looking for great restaurants that fit all
of these descriptions that I’ve just been
laying out for you here. That said, different people have
different philosophies about food. I think the key thing isn’t
to use the Rick Steves guidebook, it’s to find a
guidebook that matches your culinary philosophy,
that seems to have the kind of restaurants
that you like to go to. Once you find that, it
can be a great tool for finding the right
restaurants for your trip. Crowd sourcing sites are
very popular these days. TripAdvisor is very powerful in
terms of the world of tourism. I don’t want to necessarily throw
TripAdvisor under the bus, but I have a lot of skepticism
about these crowd source sites. I use them for hotels, I think
they can be very helpful for that. Maybe for sightseeing
experiences or tours. For restaurants, maybe not so much. Let me give you some examples
of why I’m a little bit skeptical about TripAdvisor
for restaurant hunting. Budapest, Hungary, I just
mentioned, is one of my favorite cities anywhere, and I think
Hungarian cuisine is fantastic. Actually, I think after French
and Italian, personally, I think Hungarian is the
next best cuisine in Europe. I think it’s tragically
underrated, and I know for a fact that there are lots of fantastic
restaurants in Budapest. The number one rated restaurant
in Budapest on TripAdvisor is a French restaurant, not
a Hungarian restaurant. The reason for that, is
simply that the people who are leaving reviews
on TripAdvisor are tourists, so their interests
and their preferences skew to a touristy
end of the spectrum. Let me give you an example from
the city I live in — Seattle. I love going out to
restaurants here in Seattle. Recently, I was just curious,
try this in your hometown. I was curious, so I
went to TripAdvisor and I said, “What are the top
10 restaurants in Seattle?” I looked at this list,
and I said, “I can’t remember the last time I
went to any of these.” You know what else
they have in common? The top five restaurants are all
right at Pike Place Market, the most touristy part of Seattle, and all 10 of them are
within about a mile of downtown, they’re within about a mile of where the
cruise ships come in. I’m not saying don’t use crowd
sourcing sites, I’m saying, use a crowd sourcing site that
agrees with your philosophy. For example, I use Yelp. For me, that tends to be
reviews that are left by local people, rather
than by tourists. When I look at the Yelp
top 10, I see a lot of restaurants that
I like to frequent. I trust the results I get from
Yelp a little bit better. The other thing that I wanted
to point out about Yelp is it’s not as active in a
lot of parts of Europe. You might find it in some big
European cities, but it’s not as universally well
represented in all of Europe. However, different
countries have their own kind of crowd
sourcing review sites. If you do a little research,
you might find that, for example, there’s a
French version of Yelp that does a really
good job with French restaurants, so there’s an
Italian version of Yelp. Other places that I look for good
restaurant recommendations when I’m trying to find restaurants, for
example, to add to my guidebook. A lot of newspapers have really
good food and travel writing. I think the New York Times has
really excellent food writing. They have a wonderful
series called 36 Hours in a City, where they give you
a rundown of different restaurants, bars, cafes,
and activities that you might do if you were
there for a weekend. I really enjoy that. The Guardian, which is a London
based newspaper, has really excellent food writing as
well, and travel writing. If I’m going to a city and I want
to find some new restaurants for my guidebook, I’ll actually
check these sources myself. The other thing I would recommend
is looking for local food blogs. It’s one thing to have an
international journalist come and check things
out, but it’s another thing for somebody who
really cares about food in their own community to
tell you about that food. I would just search
the name of the place you’re going and “food
blog,” so you might search for “Rome food
blog” and you might come up with Katie Parla’s food blog. She’s an American expat who
lives in Rome, and does really excellent food writing in Rome and
has some great recommendations. I also have a lot of information on
my blog, by the way, if you want to go to ricksteves.com and look for “Cameron blog,” you
just search for that. A lot of the topics I’m talking about today are covered in my blog as well. Another great place
to find restaurant recommendations is
to ask your friends. Of course, these days,
every time someone goes to a meal, they’re going to take a picture on their
phone, they’re going to post it to Instagram or Facebook. I’m joking, but actually,
this is a good tip. You could make a post on Facebook saying, “Hey, I’m going to Barcelona. Has anyone been there? Do you have any tips
for good restaurants?” You’ll be surprised how
many people are going to come back with their
personal favorites. If you want to go a little more high end, restaurant hunting can become very fun and very interesting, and
you can look at really top end resources, for example, the classic
Michelin system, a restaurant that is Michelin starred is almost
guaranteed to be a very high quality. The San Pellegrino World’s
50 Best Restaurants list is another resource that I really
enjoyed over the years. Finding out not just which
restaurants are really good, but what is the cutting edge of
cuisine these days in Europe. A lot of these famous
chefs that I mentioned earlier, really made their
name with these lists. There’s a lot of great food
TV out there now as well. Netflix has an
outstanding documentary series, called The Chef’s Table. And each episode is the profile
of another chef all around the world, and I found some really
interesting chefs that way. Speaking of these high-end
restaurant meals, I want to talk a little
bit about this idea. Obviously, it’s very expensive to go to a Michelin-rated restaurant, and for years I debated, “Is it
worth it, even as a foodie, someone who cares about food, to spend
that kind of money on a meal.” I’ve actually made a
point to try a couple of these over the last few years. I have to say, what
you have to realize when you’re going to a
really top end world rated restaurant, it’s not just about the food, although
the food is amazing. They try to create a whole
experience for you. I went to a great
restaurant in the Basque Country in Northern
Spain called Azurmendi, I think at
the time it was the 13th top rated
restaurant in the world. I thought, “Is this going to be worth basically the $200 a
person that we were going to spend for a
really nice lunch here? That sounds a little bit crazy. We walked in the door, and the first course of amuse-bouche
was this beautiful little picnic basket in their atrium, which had a lot of beautiful plants. Then they took us into
their greenhouse, and we had another amuse-bouche, and we saw some of the plants
that they actually used to get herbs for their cooking. Then they walked us into the kitchen, and we got to see the chef at work, and all of his sous chef scurrying around and making
these dishes happen. We sat down at our table, and
we chose which menu we wanted. I have to say, the food
was really remarkable, and it gave me a whole new
appreciation for some of the trends and some
of the really current thinking in terms of cooking
and food in Europe. I would say, obviously, if
you’re on a tight budget, you might not want to invest that
much in a meal, but if you think about it, $200 a person,
that’s the cost of maybe a really fun day tour, for
example, in a lot of cities. You hire a guide for
the day for $200. $200 for a meal, for a
very memorable meal, maybe is worth it for some people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *