By Wendy Perrin, TripAdvisor travel advocate
One of the big reasons many of us travel is for the food. We want to try those specialties that don’t taste the same at home, not to mention those foods we can’t even get at home — think mangosteens in Southeast Asia, or a pint of Guinness in Ireland — and, of course, we want to dine in local hangouts rather than tourist traps. With that in mind, here are ten easy steps to eating where and what the locals eat:
1. Avoid restaurants with English-language menus.
More often than not, these are tourist magnets. If somebody is stopping passers-by near the entrance of a restaurant and telling them that it’s home to the city’s best risotto or rijsttafel, that too is a red flag.
2. Follow locals to the best eats.
Check out the local newspaper’s list of best-value restaurants. You can also pick up great intel on a foodie walking and tasting tour. Hotel concierges can be helpful, but only if you ask them where they themselves would go on their night off. Once you’ve found a local hangout you love, ask your server — or whoever else you befriend at that restaurant — where else in town you should eat. And, of course, look at the restaurant ratings and reviews posted on TripAdvisor.
3. Make a beeline for food markets and farmers’ markets.
From La Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain, to the Adelaide Central Market in Adelaide, Australia, these are the colorful can’t-miss places where the locals shop for fresh delicious food, where you can pick up picnic provisions, and where you can usually sit down to a meal too.
4. In Asia, think night markets and even shopping malls.
Asia is filled with exotic night markets and hawker centers (collections of inexpensive stalls selling hot food). If you’re not that adventurous, you can still find all manner of intriguing dishes and exotic flavors in the food courts in shopping malls. It’s easy to figure out what you want to eat: Just make the rounds of the food court, smelling all the steaming specialties on offer, and place your order by pointing to whatever looks most appetizing.
5. Seek out university neighborhoods.
You’ll find inexpensive cafés and interesting ethnic restaurants, not to mention students who are eager to practice their English on you and offer up offbeat sightseeing tips.
6. Order with your hands.
When a menu isn’t in English, just walk around the restaurant and spot which dishes look most appealing, then point to those dishes. Ask what the specialty of the house is, and order that too. If you really need to read the menu, there’s the Google Translate app.
7. Dine at a smart hour.
Don’t presume you’ll want to eat at the same time you do at home. Remember that in some countries — Spain and Arab countries, for instance — locals don’t eat dinner till 10 or 11 pm. If you’re splurging on a restaurant with a spectacular view, be open to dining early (say, 5:30 or 6:00 pm) so you can enjoy the view in the daylight as well as at sunset, at twilight, and at night when the scene is all lit up.
8. Know the etiquette.
Before you make a faux pas such as sticking your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice in Japan, read up on local customs. TripAdvisor has “Tipping & Etiquette” pages for dozens of countries (just punch “TripAdvisor [country name] tipping etiquette” into your search engine. Here are more ways to learn local customs.
9. If you can’t get a reservation, just show up.
Walk in (nicely dressed) at the hour when the restaurant opens for dinner, or late in the evening. You’d be surprised how often there are no-shows. Here are more tricks for getting a table at a hot restaurant.
10. Visit the takeout aisle of a local supermarket.
Supermarkets are an interesting window into the local culture. Once you see what residents take home to eat, you just might be tempted too — and you can’t beat the price.