Eating well on the road

Times Staff Writer

When I travel — whether for business or pleasure, at home or abroad, over-night or for a month — I make my restaurant reservations before I make my airplane, hotel and rental car reservations.

"But how do you know — how do you decide — where to eat?" various friends, colleagues and readers have often asked me, in virtually the same words.

The first part of that answer is easy. I do the same thing most folks do. I look at guidebooks I've come to trust. Foremost among these, because France is my favorite vacation destination, are the "Guide Michelin" and Patricia Wells' books, "Food Lovers Guide to France" and "Food Lovers Guide to Paris."

I haven't found Michelin nearly as dependable in other countries, but in England, I've relied happily on the "Good Food Guide" and in Italy, I've consulted Faith Willinger's "Eating in Italy: A Traveler's Guide to the Hidden Gastronomic Pleasures of Northern Italy" and Fred Plotkin's "Italy for the Gourmet Traveler." Once I land in Italy, I buy or browse "La Guida dell'Espresso," "I Ristoranti di Veronelli" and "La Guida dei Ristoranti d'Italia," published by Gambero Rosso, which also produces the best guidebook to Italian wines. The latter three are in Italian — which I neither read nor speak — but I can follow the symbols, and there's usually a concierge or some other friendly fellow around to help translate when I need it.

My second line of gastronomic research involves food magazines. I check recent issues of Saveur, Food and Wine, Gourmet and Bon Appétit to see if they've written about restaurants in the cities I plan to visit. If I'm going to Italy, I also check Gambero Rosso, the superb monthly magazine of Italian food, wine and travel, published by the same company that produces the Italian restaurant and wine guidebooks.

The magazines and guidebooks are easy — and obvious — and, to be perfectly frank, not always as current or as attuned to my (or your) personal tastes as a couple of other resources I'd recommend.

When I'm traveling in this country, I call or e-mail the restaurant critic for the major newspaper or city magazine where I plan to go and ask him or her for recommendations. Granted, that's easier for me than it is for most of you; I write a weekly food and wine column for The Times and over the years — through various food and wine events and associations — I've met and eaten with many of these folks.

But I've found most of them to be generous with their time, passionate about the dining experience and generally eager to share their enthusiasm and expertise. While some of them may never speak to me — or eat with me — again after I make this suggestion, I'd bet that if you e-mailed them, apologized for bothering them and politely solicited their restaurant recommendations, you'd get help far more often than not. Be sure to tell them the kinds of restaurants you like — type of cuisine, level of formality, cost etc.

In fact, most of the better big-city restaurant critics travel widely and might even be able to make recommendations in cities where they don't live, especially foreign cities. I've often tapped their wisdom for restaurant guidance in France, Italy, England and Spain, for example.

A tip: Go online and read a few reviews by the critic before you try to contact him or her. If you like what you read, say so when you ask for recommendations. I don't know anyone who doesn't respond to sincere flattery and an honest request for help.

My next suggestion is the easiest of all. Ask friends or colleagues who have visited your intended destination if they have favorite restaurants to recommend. They're more likely to know your tastes than would a restaurant critic or guidebook author you've never met.

Next, ask the manager or maitre d' or owner of your favorite local restaurant where he likes to eat when he travels to wherever you're going.

This approach probably won't yield much, of course, if your favorite restaurant is the Sizzler in a shopping mall and you're looking for advice on Paris. But if you're going to France or Italy, let's say, and you have a favorite French or Italian restaurant here, you should ask for advice at that restaurant.

Again, I realize that's simpler for me than it might be for the typical diner. But if you go to a restaurant with any frequency, you've probably developed at least a nodding acquaintance with a manager or maitre d' or with at least one waiter. Once you explain what you want, I guarantee someone in the restaurant will happily come forward to help. It's been my experience that most restaurateurs are generous of spirit. The best restaurateurs see their restaurants as extensions of their homes; they see their customers as guests and they're eager to be accommodating.

Ask restaurant staff for tips A final suggestion: When you get to where you're going and find a restaurant you like, ask your waiter, the maitre d' or manager of that restaurant where else he'd recommend you eat.

Many travelers are afraid to ask that question. They worry that the restaurant personnel will be offended, that they'll think that if you really like their restaurant, you should want to go back there, not elsewhere. Wrong. If you tell them you're just visiting, they'll understand that you want different experiences on subsequent nights and they'll be happy to help.

In Western Europe, in particular, where I've had most of my foreign dining experience, I've been repeatedly astonished by how helpful and generous restaurateurs have been.

Once, my wife and I were in Lille in northern France, at a restaurant called Le Flambard. The chef-owner came by our table after dinner, as chefs in France often do with diners, and after a brief exchange, he asked where we were staying, when we were leaving town and where we were headed next.

When I said we were going to Brussels, he recommended three restaurants there — without being asked. Then he did something extraordinary.

I was not writing about restaurants then, he didn't know I was a journalist and he had no reason to go out of his way for us. But when I said we were leaving for Brussels at 10 the next morning, he said, "It's very tricky to find the right way out of town, toward Brussels. I'll be in your hotel lobby at 10 to show you the way."

True to his word, when I walked into the lobby the next morning to check out, he was there, wearing a coat and tie and a warm smile. He helped load our luggage in our rental car and literally led us through Lille and on to the highway — and stayed with us until we came to the second set of signs directing us toward Brussels.

Not surprisingly, his restaurant recommendations in Brussels proved superb.


David Shaw writes a weekly column in The Times Food section and a weekly column, on the media, in The Times Sunday Calendar section.

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