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Discovering the culinary heart of a city

  • c

Chowhounds, as a semi-frequent traveler, I often find myself with little lead time for researching culinary options before I'm air-dropped into an unfamiliar place. I have friends who are remarkable at ferreting out where to eat, drink and socialize with nothing to guide them but their wits. Although I've picked up a few tips over time -- asking random locals point blank where their favorite places are while standing in line at the grocery store or looking for crowds at any eating establishment being the most obvious of them -- but I still have a lot to learn! I envy those of you who seem to have a natural nose for finding good food.

Without advanced research (no prior Chowhounding!) and without a guidebook (most smaller towns are too small to be the subjects of guidebooks, in any case), how do you find your way? Are there particular types of people you look for, to ask? Can you spot a Chowhound from the way they dress, speak, move, from where they are? Can you intuit what will and won't be good at a restaurant? Please share your secrets!

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  1. I can't ID a 'hound by sight, but between the spouse and I we can often find the place to go in small towns we're driving through, although we're the first to say not all such places have worthy spots, and we don't bat 1.000. Homey signs. Hand-written signs on the sidewalk with today's specials, or those movable letter signs on wheels with something that sounds appropriate but not always found on menus. (Pot roast, yes; beef wellington, no.) Off the interstate, roadside signs saying something like "Since 1948" usually cause us to take note.

    We have no qualms about asking about anything on the menu that strikes us as just slightly off the beaten path; servers are usually glad to say, "Oh, that's Darlene's mother's recipe - Darlene's the owner? - and lots of folks think them potatoes are just the best thing."

    I put no faith in trucks parked outside EXCEPT at the breakfast hour, and then it must be pickup trucks.

    3 Replies
    1. re: lemons

      My Tip: Always ask food advice from a fat person!

      1. re: chocolatebirthdaycake

        ;) but i'd be sad to miss out on all the other good advice from ppl!

      2. re: lemons

        i like the off the beaten path menu options idea -- thanks, lemons!

        btw, i have an exception for your no trucks out front rule. fort lou's in new hampshire is a truck stop with one of the best breakfasts for miles around. great stuff. and you're not sharing space with trust-fund, ivy league drop out truck drivers, either.

        i've actually found some wonderful food at truck stops, road tripping.

      3. That can be a bit difficult as I'm sure Chowhounders come in all shapes and sizes. I know a lot of my friends have admitted to me that they thought I couldn't cook a lick when they first met me as they thought I didn't look very "domestic." I have a terrible "nose" for ferreting out a chowhound so I do the obvious. If you're not able to do advanced research, I'd ask the concierge (if your hotel has any) about where the locals go. And if a place has a big line of locals (not tourists), that can be a good sign. And I tend to ask the waitstaff what they're known for. I do get a lot of "Everything's good." But once in a while you'll get a great waiter who will tell you the truth.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Miss Needle

          You don't need a nose for Chowhounds so long as you've a nose for the actual place!

          Re: looking domestic, at least no one thought you regularly blow up meals like my upstairs French neighbors did when they first came over for dinner. Just because I burn a few pieces of toast here and there...

          1. re: cimui

            concierges can be okay, so long as you're asking about well-known "nice restaurants" and conventional-wisdom type questions. when your question is more obscure, they'll often get stumped or try again to send you to the tourist destination. a lot of concierges are to some extent on the take-- their bar tabs are covered or reduced at restaurant & bar x, y, & z while they rec it to their guests. some places, like the strip clubs, overtly give cash, i think it's still $5/head, to concierges and cabbies who bring in their fares. that's the way it is in my town, so i'm suspicious of all concierges i guess.

            i've had good luck when hoofing it around town, or taking public transit. if i see a chowish-looking grocery store, gourmet shop or street market i'll often stop and browse around, even if i don't really need anything or can't carry it around. these places attract other folks who are into food, and who often like to share recs. i'll admit to scoping someone out by the contents of their grocery basket and insinuating my way into conversation with them to see where they like to eat. is that creepy? oh well i don't mean anyone any harm, just trying to figure out where i'm eating my next meal, and the conversation is usually very pleasant, duh, it's about good food. . .

            1. re: soupkitten

              >>i'll admit to scoping someone out by the contents of their grocery basket and insinuating my way into conversation with them to see where they like to eat. is that creepy?

              a little... ;)
              but a brilliant strategy that i think i'll have to adopt.

              1. re: soupkitten

                I'll agree with cimui that it's a bit creepy -- but only a bit. : )

                But I think you have the best suggestion. I know I've been disappointed on many occasions by choosing a place because it looked "Chowhoundy" (if there ever is such a thing) and off-the-beaten path and have been surprised on many occasions by a slick over-the-top place. I've had the best meal in W. Florida this year (Chowhounders tipped me to it) where it looked like a cheezy dark 80s nightclub blasting techno music. I was really expecting the worst as it looked like a place where they would care more about the ambiance than the food, but was so pleasantly surprised by the chow.

                1. re: Miss Needle

                  LOL! :) just so you're both not imagining me in wig & dark glasses, stalking the gourmet shops and following foodies home. . . i employed this method much more often before i found chowhound-- i think i learned it by osmosis when i traveled in europe when i was a much younger kitten & needed to get away from touristy areas. generally i give full disclosure about my motives within the first minute or two of conversation-- just a simple "hey i just came into town, i've never visited before. i'm looking for a good place for dinner, but the travel books are worthless, you know? do you have a favorite place in downtown/chinatown/riverside?" and you get the most amazing recs, folks tell you the best way to get there, the little bakery to stop in on the way, the name of the guy selling hot dogs on the square. . . people who love food *love* talking up their fave local places. i love that about people, and i love that about chowhound. now i need to be able to travel again!

          2. I travel a lot to remote areas all over the globe. I always have to struggle a bit with the local partners to have them bel;ieve that I really do want to eat where normal people eat, not where tourists or even the country's elites eat. There is a certain look to the places I favor: rustic but not in a contrived way, local people, no servers - just the people who cook bringing it on. Street and market foods are usually good as well.

            In the rural western US, I look for independents with old neon, or plastic letter boards, funky names. Usually ask around at the bar or tavern over beers first. In NYC, I walk around and select places by their ethnic and semi-grimey look. Never fails.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              I'm deeply fond of street food, as well. That tends to be easier to gauge, since it's all out there in the open and you can see what other ppl are ordering, how many ppl are in line, and actually see/smell what you're getting before you get it.

              Re: soliciting tips from people in a bar --Sometimes that's worked, but I can also remember instances when I was directed to truly dreadful places (the most oily, but watery, goulash you could imagine in Budapest). my suspicion is that esp. at a bar and esp. if you're a girl, ppl sometimes make things up just so they don't have to say "i don't know", unfortunately!

              i shall look for the neon next time in the rural west!

            2. I don't think you can spot a CH by clothes or how they speak. If you're really in unfamiliar land or in the middle of nowhere I think you're better off asking anyone reasonably intelligent looking or local looking and reading people's responses and use some friendly follow-up Q&A to ferret things out.

              I usually ask someone at a shop or near by business that I happen across and gauge off their response. Then follow up and ask what's good. If their answer is flat, I don't go, unless I hear it again. If they spark up and they seem like they actually like something there...it goes on the short list. If I actually go, I still have to figure out the menu.

              Any way, in those situations, sometimes it's about not getting a bad meal, rather then getting a good meal.

              1 Reply
              1. re: ML8000

                The followup question bit is is really good advice, ML. That way you can weed out when someone says a place is good just because they think you'll like it. (Example: being sent to a dreadful Japanese restaurant in small town Texas because the person thought I was Japanese... yikes.)

                >> don't think you can spot a CH by clothes or how they speak.

                No one told you about the secret CH handkerchief?

              2. In smaller towns I generally check around the courthouse, town square or the old blue highways that pass through. The "bypass" roads seem to have mostly chains. Sam's tip on old neon has worked pretty good for me too. If there is time to look at community bulletin boards (often at laundromats) or the local freebie weekly news, I check them for church fish fry's and the like. Food is usually very good, you are helping the community and the people are so tickled to find a stranger in their midst that you are inundated with great suggestions for the rest of your stay.

                My best breakfasts in rural areas have been found near livestock auction yards, granaries, and farm supply stores. If there is water, then by the marina or baitshop can be good.

                Small colleges can have decent pub or ethnic foods nearby. If it is lunch and there is a construction site, I've watched where the work force goes...but this has worked best for me in larger cities, esp. NYC & Chicago.

                I often stop by the library and ask the staff...have yet to get a less than good referral. UPS guys know the area and can have good tips too.
                I seldom have had good advise from Hotel staff. They seem to refer you to the easiest to locate place so you don't get lost, or to a generic chain sort of place. Maybe it's my choice of hotel?!

                2 Replies
                1. re: meatn3

                  very, very interesting tips, meatn3. the library i'm a little surprised by. wonder why they would know...

                  1. re: cimui

                    I just know it has worked for me! Maybe since their job requires cataloging, that skill translates into really listening to your request and being able to match it to their known area venues...

                    I used to be on the road a little over half the year, most of the time through smaller areas. Very seldom did I end up with a bad meal. And I never had access for internet research then.

                    Sometimes the very odd locations are great. I was in the DC metro area for a show, and we were driving, looking for dinner. Went by a large office park, with a light industrial focus. Everything was closed except an Italian place with a great many late model cars out front. The cars just didn't really match with the deserted local, and it didn't appear to be a "gentlemans club" place. It was so odd, we turned around and investigated. As soon as we gor out of the van we were hit with a wnderful aroma! It turned out to be excellent - we went back 2 other nights with show buddies. My former biz partner still goes there 8 years later when in town for a show.