Discovering great restaurants is harder than it seems. Ratings apps help, but the users of an app aren’t necessarily the best collective judge. (I’ve been in towns in America where the highest rated pizza restaurant is Domino’s according to Yelp reviews. That can’t possibly be right.)
You can look for signs of quality and innovation by scanning menus, which often reveal if the menu changes seasonally (which is good) or is the same year-round (which may not be good).
Check out what’s on the table. Does the food look good? Is everything deep fried? Also: If you’re in Europe and see what looks like high-quality olive oil on the table, that can be a good sign.
Sometimes beer selection unmasks restaurant quality. Most restaurants around the world serve some kind of mass-produced national lager, or possibly pilsner. Every country seems to produce one, two or a few. Coors and Budweiser in the US. Brahma in Brazil. Snow in China. Many European joints serve Heineken and Estrella, for some reason. Here’s what to look out for: Restaurants that offer nondescript beers exclusively telegraph indifference to the craft beer revolution sweeping the planet, and tend to be equally uninformed or uninspired in the kitchen. When we don’t have a lot of time for exploring restaurants, we’ll just look at what’s on tap at the bar, and move on if it’s limited and boring as it’s a clear signal that the restaurateur is indifferent about food generally and lacks creativity or knowledge specifically.
Bathrooms offer another clue. You’ll often find a positive correlation between cleanliness and attention to detail in the bathroom and the quality of a restaurant overall.
Some restaurants around the world don’t have posted menus, anything on the tables or even bathrooms. Our gastronomad son, Kevin, keeps a checklist for authenticity in Latin American and Southeast Asian street food: Plastic chairs? Check. Fluorescent lights? Check. No menu? Check. Family staff (i.e. child labor)? Check. Packed with locals? Check.
The point is that every region in the world has its own clues to restaurant quality, which can be divined before commitment.
Ultimately there’s no test of a restaurant better than tasting the food. But how? There are so many restaurants and so little time.
We play what we call restaurant roulette.
Instead of sitting down and ordering drinks, appetizer, entree and more, we order a single item to share. If it’s amazing, we’ll order another thing. If not, we pay the check and leave, then find another restaurant. And so on.
In other words, the process is to order one thing at a time, and order the next item in any given restaurant only if the last item was very good. If the food is amazing, we keep ordering food and enjoy a great meal, but that’s not what typically happens.
We’ve been known to dine at as many as six restaurants for a single dinner. It’s a great way to cover many establishments in a short period of time. Best of all, restaurant roulette is a fun way to spend an evening, discovering, tasting and exploring.