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WWYD with no Chowhound?

Inspired by this recent post (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/611889) about our lesser foodie moments, I wondered what Chowhounds would do in a new city and no access to the Chowhound board.

I have often travelled to new cities without doing the proper research, and been stuck with the local Where magazine or other tourist propaganda as my guide on where to eat. I know I shouldn't trust the advertising or the "recommendation" as fueled by ad dollars, and yet I go and try the place with the prettiest pictures or the most stars. Inevitably it turns out to be even more disappointing than room service.

What do you use as your spidey sense when you're on the road? Are there key words/phrases/signs that you intuitively use to filter out the overrrated from the good?

(Especially in small town USA, I often find solace in chain restaurants. At least I know what to expect.)

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  1. No internet access at all?

    >>> yet I go and try the place with the prettiest pictures or the most stars

    As Dr. Phil would say, "How's that working for you?"

    First ignore those. I personally wouldn't use the magazines, are you looking for other ways to find good food in a new city? Or do you just want to look for bell-ringing lingo in ads?

    Second, i'd bypass anthing with 'award-winning' that doesn't qualify WHAT award. Magnificant view often means sucky food. They have the view to bring folks in. They don't need to worry about the food as much.

    Famous xxx

    Ignore famous dishes as they are often bad. Uping the disappointment factor ... world famous.

    The best xxx

    See notes about famous

    Key words to look for ... no guarantee ... homemade ... family owned since xxx ...

    Take a look in your local yellow pages and pick up travel mags for your city. Look at the lingo for places you like or don't like and you will get a feel for the restaurant equivalets of 'fixer-uper'

    Now if you want to shush out good food other ways, that is more reliable.

    1. At bottom, I have the completely opposite approach. First of all, No Chains. I'll drive 40 minutes from the Interstate or get beef jerky from a gas station, but no chains. I agree with you in one respect, from a chain I know what to expect - lousy, processed, unhealthy food. No thanks!

      Me, I prefer to take my chances in local spots. At times, this can be a bit uncomfortable –you know, "sore thumb syndrome." And, sometimes, I admit, the food is downright awful. Nevertheless, a little discussion with the server - if you're lucky (s)he's also an owner – will often help in navigating a menu. If you’re really lucky, you find a regional treat – think steamed Chesapeake oysters or steaks cut from locally raised cattle.

      To find places, I will typically ask locals – bartenders, hotel clerks, random people in line at the liquor store, etc. Also, look for lines, especially at lunchtime. If a place has a line out the door at one, stop ba

      18 Replies
      1. re: MGZ

        Re your last paragraph--me, too. I ask locals A LOT. One of my best memories of a great food find on vacation was Island Grill in Islamorada, FL--we merely asked locals while en route to Key West and found a really great place right on the water. I still very fondly remember our lunch there, it was SO great!

        1. re: MGZ

          "from a chain I know what to expect - lousy, processed, unhealthy food. No thanks! "

          do you think this goes for (chain) places like Morton's, Oceanaire, Ruth's Chris, Fuddruckers and Baja Fresh? (just to mention just a few.

          1. re: ScubaSteve

            >>> "from a chain I know what to expect - lousy, processed, unhealthy food. No thanks! "

            do you think this goes for (chain) places like Morton's, Oceanaire, Ruth's Chris, Fuddruckers and Baja Fresh? (just to mention just a few.

            Though I'm not the one you asked, for every single one you mentioned .... lousy, processed, unhealthy food ... yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

            If you think otherwise, I can only guess you are eating exclusively at chains. Hey, there was a time I thought these were quality joints.

            First of all, most of the food comes from Sysco. Read through that site and it is all about convenience and profit ... how the fake grill marks on meat suck people in, etc.

            These restaurants are smart in that if they are listing nutrional info at all, it is calories and such, not details as to the preservatives, unhealthy fats etc. If you doubt this, write any of the companies and ask for nutritional details on any of thier dishes. I think you will be shocked.

            There are no chefs at these places. There are line cooks. It is just a job and they are just replacating some 'crowd pleasing' dish dreamed up in a corporate kitchen.

            With the economy so bad these days, why waste dining out dollars on junk like this? Yes, I know people will defend the steakhouses mentioned. They are still souless and calculating. Find a local steakhouse on the same level and see if there's a difference

            1. re: rworange

              I 2nd your motion. Although to be fair... many local restaurants also source from Sysco. With that said nothing beats knowing what fresh quality, healthy food tastes like... and that comes from cooking yourself.

              Knowing how to cook also helps in other scenarios. What if you are in a restaurant that sources high quality, local, sustainable ingredients but cooks in the traditional French styles that use ungodly amounts of butter? We can all talk about healthy California Cuisine etc., but most of these guys & gals still graduated from CIA or similar curriculum and have developed their entire careers around the philosophy of improving flavor & mouthfeel with hidden fats.

              I bet if we did the Super Size Me equivalent of Haute restaurants... we would find similar (I would argue not as drastic, but similar) results... lots of weight gain, higher cholesterol, blood pressure etc.,

              1. re: rworange

                as having direct evidence to the contrary on this post all i can say is that you're wrong.

                fake grill marks? please!

                the last time i checked Baja Fresh doesn't even have freezers in their establishments. everything comes in fresh and is prepped, prepared and served simply and quickly.

                i also believe that Fudruckers grinds all their beef on premises and bakes their rolls fresh daily.

                Oceanaire receives daily deliveries of fresh seafood, oysters and clams.

                i would agree with you about places like TGIF, Applebees and their ilk but there are some chains that do things right. your blind hatred and venom towards chains is really too much.

                1. re: ScubaSteve

                  What is your direct evidence? Seriously, contact these places and ask for their ingredients. If they were so proud of what they were serving, they'd be not only putting that nutritional info on their websites, they would be trumpheting it in ads.

                  We all know there are no regulations for using words like 'fresh', 'natural', etc. They make good buzz words thought. The devil is in the details.

                  I don't hate chains. I just feel sorry for people who eat there. I eat there at times. I feel sorry for me when I do. I just think people underestimate ... even in these times ... corporate honesty. They are only making food crowd-pleasing enough to make their investors happy.All you have to do is read through some of the franchise info on these sites

                  They are not run by people who would like to make a living because they have a passion for cooking and take pride in what is being served.

                  But again, I won't convince you and you won't convince me otherwise. For me, I'd rather partronize a place where 'food is good' rather than 'greed is good'.

                  1. re: rworange

                    i used to run a work-release program that helped staff the kitchens of some of these places and as such had un-announced kitchen visitation rights.

                    i'm with you about eating at local-owned establishments and i lead by example in my own dining and reccomendations to friends.

                    i just think that people can get too caught up in the Chain as Evil thing and forget that there are good people worrking at some of these places that truly care about putting good solid chow on the plate.

                    1. re: rworange

                      Local does not automatically equal good, nor fresh either. You also need to do your homework there. Much more closely than you would if you went to chains because the information on chains are more readily available.

                      1. re: Phaedrus

                        Really good point. Someone just posted a link to an independent restaurant on my local board and commented how brave it was to post photographs of their kitchen. Overnight, someone read that review and took a more careful look at the pictures only to point out that the restaurant is indeed brave (and arguably not so bright) as it posted a picture in which a big can of olive-POMACE oil was prominently featured. OOPS. So much for quality ingredients!

                        I completely agree--local does NOT automatically equal good or fresh. And it's more challenging to monitor that in independents for just the reason you mention.

                        1. re: kattyeyes

                          However, chains does mean least common denometor crowd-pleasing. Yep, it is challenging sometimes to choose a local joint, but the rewards can be so much greater. And even the misses ... sometimes you need to feed your soul, not sell it in exchange for safe mediocrity. After a while, you stop noticing that it is medicore.

                          1. re: rworange

                            I personally don't ever stop noticing mediocrity--I seek delicious food and to rise far above mediocrity as any serious hound should.

                            I prefer local, non-chains, too. But, it's not as black and white as you're making it seem--just as Phaedrus pointed out. The olive-pomace oil is a good example.

                            Oh, and my soul and I are both well-fed, thank you. ;) My soul is not for sale. either!

                            1. re: kattyeyes

                              I'm not denying there are bad local places. However, I'm amazed how people jump to defend chains. I actually find it ludicrous since they have millions of $$$$ to promote hype. Yet people are quick to dump on the mom nad pop pulling out photos to prove how crappy they are and then that gets extrapolated to all small restaurants ... this place is crappy, therefor all mom and pops are crappy. Let's go to Olive Garden. We know what to expect.

                              1. re: rworange

                                <<Yet people are quick to dump on the mom nad pop pulling out photos to prove how crappy they are and then that gets extrapolated to all small restaurants ... this place is crappy, therefor all mom and pops are crappy. Let's go to Olive Garden. We know what to expect.>>

                                Nooooooooooo. Just reiterating that it's not black and white--but that's exactly the logic you keep coming back with. I grew up in an Italian restaurant and my grandparents owned a mom & pop deli. Why would you think I go to Olive Garden?!

                                Bottom line:
                                Not all chains are garbage.
                                Not all independent restaurants are great.
                                This is part of what makes Chowhound great--we get to discuss it.
                                But it is not black and white.
                                I support my local indies as a patron and through my reviews here on CH and I know lots of other hounds who do, too. I don't think we're exactly in the minority here!

                                1. re: kattyeyes

                                  You are the person reading black and white into it and interpreting what i'm saying as such.

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    Well, if I am misinterpreting your words, I do apologize. It sounded as though you were saying all chains are inherently bad and lack fresh, healthy food--and I (and others) took exception to that.

                                    But what's funny is you and I both obviously like and support local independents, so we would seem more likely to shake hands rather than argue. I come in peace. Eatwhatchalike!

                                2. re: rworange

                                  The original point, though I suppose a bit hyperbolic, remains - I like a little adventure. I prefer to take my chances.

                                  Of the "better" chain places mentioned, I admit to having a Fuddruckers burger once in Baltimore - it's probably been 15 years now. Can't say I remember much about it. Don't really know the others, but my initial post really was in contemplation of the BK, McD's, etc.

                                  As for the fact that decent, hard-working people are behind the scenes at chains, I don't doubt it. I am of the mindset that everyone should take pride in whatever it is they do and I am sure others feel the same way in all walks of life. Nevertheless, it doesn't change the fact that when I am in a new place I will seek out locally-owned places to eat.

                                  1. re: MGZ

                                    Thanks for steering us back on topic. I like a little adventure, too, and find that asking locals has yielded some great tips and tasty chow. And like you, I seek the local places, too...not the chains.

                            2. re: kattyeyes

                              Actually the existence of POMACE is not in any way a smoking gun. For some applications, for example frying, POMACE is vastly superior to Virgin Olive Oil due to the fact that it is even more monounsaturated & resilent in high temperatures as such it will resist hydrogenation & oxidation through repeated uses.

                              (Which lets be frank not many restaurants use new frying oil with every batch)

                2. There was actually a thread about this last year. I believe cimui started it when she said that she went traveling on business to places where there really aren't any review of places. There were several responses. The most entertaining (and best IMO) one was by soupkitten who says that she would go to the supermarket and peer into people's carts. If she liked what she saw, she would try to start a conversation with that person to get all the goods. I can't find the thread but perhaps somebody else can.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    Oooh I like this idea. You can pre-qualify the advice based on their home cooking. Brilliant.

                    1. re: RoraCraving

                      I was just thinking about this earlier this morning. How, outside the CH community, it's often hard to get good restaurant reviews from casual acquaintances, coworkers or neighbors. My mom has said for years it's because so many people don't cook and I think she's right.

                      1. re: RoraCraving

                        This might backfire though - There's always good stuff in my grocery cart because I can't afford to eat out, so I'm not a great source for restaurant recs.

                        1. re: mordacity

                          I can only see this backfiring if you lie/make up a recommendation instead of saying you don't eat out often and, therefore, are not the best person to ask. Maybe the OP would get a great recipe or idea from you instead. ;) All is not lost.

                    2. It's a great opportunity and a chowhound's dream to go hunting for deliciousness cold, without any guide whatsoever; often we're blasted by all sorts of media information from all sides, knowing nothing would be a refreshing change. I usually walk through neighbourhoods, cross across areas via public transportation (preferably above ground to look for places to eat), looking at menus and what people are eating, smell the chow -- it's a great way to explore a city or town. I usually look for menus or dishes that look unusual or out of place.

                      1 Reply
                      1. If you're in a large enough town, look for a local independent/alternative newspaper. They're usually free, available pretty much everywhere in downtown locations, and can at least can give you some ideas. Plus, if you're alone, you get the bonus of all of the sex shop ads to read during dinner!

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: sebetti

                          I used to be able to do that without fail. The small alternative weekly was my staple goto source of info for years. Creative Loafing in Atlanta, Riverfront Times in St. Louis. In fact I am still in touch with some of the food columnists. But alas, these papers have either died out or are now corporate entities, or have hired people who's view of food don't particularly mesh with mine, which is how I came to Chowhound in the frst place.

                          My rude awakening came when I moved to Ohio and finding no alternative weekly, I went with the local paper. Not a happy experience. They tend to push the blandest, least interesting local places. I don't know why.

                          1. re: Phaedrus

                            >>> They tend to push the blandest, least interesting local places. I don't know why.

                            Why. Advertising.

                            1. re: rworange

                              Well, thats the obvious reason, but I think it has a lot to do with the lack of imagination of the writers too.

                              There was a girl in St. Louis who is a transplanted New Yorker who tries to write in as obtuse a style as possible, spending more paragraphs on how cool she is and how uncool St. Louis is, while also reviewing the worst local places possible.

                        2. I normally end up where CH has had no coverage.

                          1. It's happened to me a few times and I tend to ask the locals (generally shopkeepers, never people who work at hotels as they tend to direct you to generic, touristy places or restaurants they've got deals with). I have to say that the recommendations have been spot on the majority of the times. However, I also like to explore on my own and go with my instincts, sometimes with good results, sometimes awful but the last thing I would ever want to do is be safe and set foot in a chain restaurant unless I am ravenous, in the middle of the desert and left with that as my sole choice.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Paula76

                              You know, you'd be suprised that many hotel workers ARE Chowhounds! I am. Yes, my company wants me to promote our in-house restos and that's actually not a bad thing. (I mean..Bouchon? It's beyond bliss, IMHO) BUT: If the guest actually wants honest, real foodie answers from me, they GET IT. I have steered people to Lotus Of Siam many times, along with off-Strip places locals eat. (I'm in Las Vegas, if you haven't guessed)
                              I've even told callers ABOUT Chowhound, and they are very thankful! Who knows, perhaps they even joined the site.

                              Ohyeah, without this site, i'd do what I used to do before I knew about it: reccomendations from trusted friends with similar tastes as mine, and wonderful -explorations- of the city i'm in! It's not always a 100% perfect fit, but then neither is this site. (while still great, don't get me wrong) It's all a crapshoot, but I try to be adventerous no matter what.

                            2. I don't consider myself a 5-star girl. I like good food, made by good people at a fair price. Paper napkins and a bendy straw? Eat from wax paper standing over a manhole cover? Sure, I'm up for it. Sit down near a window overlooking the water? You bet!
                              If it smells good from the street, we are there. I also like to have a sense of what food is local to the area, and correct for the establishment (i.e. I don't order crab cakes at a bar & grill)

                              It took a while but I adopted the attitude of 'Roll with it and hope for the best!' I have little qualms talking to strangers in line while getting coffee and the paper. Usually when we travel it's my job to figure out the food spots. My husband actually liked many chains, including Carrabba's (blah!) when we first met. I like to think I 'cured' him.
                              He also chat's up the guy sweeping the parking lot of the gas station near hotel (there are a great deal of 'Hey Bo, how you doin? Listen man where you take your old lady for a good steak?' exchanges that occur.

                              Also we do take our chances at roadside stands... But we learned not to ask a college kid in a mall in a college town where to go for sushi!

                              1. We've gotten some great reviews off of local food blogger sites. While planning our trip, we navigate thru CH for city/state restaurant reviews as well as localized food journals found thru Google search. We also rely on hotel workers to give us some road food tips. Walk into a small grocery store, ask: "where can I get great ribs" and you'll get the answer right quick. Good way to meet people.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: HillJ

                                  That is a good strategy to start out asking for a specific dish like ribs. A lot of times in big towns just asking where to eat will get you sent to where the tourists eat.

                                  1. re: HillJ

                                    OP said no access to the internet, thus no access to anyone's blogs.

                                    1. re: PeterL

                                      Hotels offer free Internet access.
                                      Easy enough to log on if you stay in a hotel.
                                      They also print out Restaurant.com coupons for guests upon request.
                                      Internet cafes are avail in many tourist towns, I've used them in Bermuda.
                                      There is cell phone access as well.
                                      Depending on your trip, sense of adventure you can find access fairly easily.

                                      So, don't worry-be happy!

                                      eta: I just realized the OP can access CH & local food bloggers prior to leaving for a trip and rely upon some of the other recommendation offered here when he/she lands! If OP is staying w/family & friends they might have access.

                                      So, again-no problem!

                                      1. re: PeterL

                                        Exactly WHERE does it say that? The OP said "no access to the Chowhound board.". If you follow Chowhound at all that is a different thing. It is often down.

                                        HillJ offered a lot of options for internet access. The OP never clarified if they were looking for ways to read local travel mags or if there was internet access.

                                        That being said, limster is right. The best way is to develop a Chowhound sense. Start at home. Step into restaurants you've never been. Look at the menus. Then when you are on the road, you have those skills developed. It is unusual to get a meal worse than a bland chain, as safe as that might be.

                                        1. re: rworange

                                          This is more a meandering topic but yes, in my original post, I was imagining no access to internet. Not because it doesn't exist but when you travel for work, you often stop in places that are far beyond chowhound's reach or even have a local tourism board. Places that don't even have their own local map.

                                          I wanted to hear what the decision process is for a CHer when they go on the road, starving, and the pull up to the local small town.

                                          I have often tried the local family restaurant that looks harmless enough but it often disappoints when perhaps the one down the street is way better. Locals often recommend chain restaurants. And one too many visits to the local polynesian/asian/tikki hut has left me starving at the end of a long day. It's nice to hear everyone's finely honed methodology.

                                          1. re: RoraCraving

                                            Have you ever read Jim Leff's North American tour. If ever there was a guidebook on how to pick places with nothing more than intuition this is it.

                                            He writes in the first installment

                                            As a dedicated chowhound, I have an insatiable desire to soak up experiences outside the slick bubble. I refuse to be distracted by the shiny bauble of hype. Even in this plastic era of pandemic soul-stifling chains, there are still compellingly unique destinations. It’s just a matter of drilling down to find the local gems. I will Photoshop out the Applebee’s and Denny’s from my chowscape.

                                            There’s no cheating allowed. I won’t call local food critics for tips, I’ll carry no guidebooks, and I won’t even scour through the Chowhound message boards (reliable though they are for excavating under-radar deliciousness).

                                            There are risks, of course, in dropping in to strange places and expecting to eat superbly. That’s why the crashes might be the most interesting parts. There may be stretches where I fail to score, perhaps even resorting—in moments of extreme deprivation—to victuals that are merely adequate"

                                            And yet on that long journey he didn't crash that much.

                                            On the other hand, a later tour of Mongolia (yes,Mongolia) by someone else shows exactly what not to do

                                            I would actually be surprised that there is any place in the US that doesn't have some info on the net. I say this because following along that Mongolia tour, I could Google the name of almost every location and get some info back ... and that was ... well, Mongolia, for heaven's sake.

                                            That being said, I know from being on the road many years that at the end of a long work day or commute, there's not a lot of desire to get on the web. I just want to find someplace to eat quick. Also, even looking on the web, it can be hard to know if someone's gushy rec or hateful diatribe is reliable. Any detailed descriptions about the food usually makes it more credible.

                                            Again, I'm more of a drive around person, trusting my instincts. However, if I must ask a local, I'll pick a few restaurants I've seen driving in and ask about them specifically and if there's anything better. You can tell by the response if they are into food. If they are just recommending the local chain, move on to someone else.

                                            There are lots of these types of discussions on the General Board. I'd look a few up for you but search is so wonky these days I can't be bothered with it.

                                          1. re: rworange

                                            I think what I was trying to say is that without access to CH while traveling, I might not have reliable information about where to eat. I find CH way more reliable than Z.....

                                      1. I usually look in the phone book. Make a list of the interesting places (the spidey vibe usually hinges on the restaurant’s name or the voice on the phone) and I either call or drive by. I live in small town USA and the chains are not always the answer.

                                        This method has worked great for me...in Savannah, GA. had a terrific meal at a Cuban resto located in an old house a couple blocks from the motel. In Nashville, found a great pub with a wonderful Bluecheese burger. And, of course, the best – Gullah Cuisine in Charleston, SC, found the same way.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: cuccubear

                                          Oooohh... Gullah Cuisine! In my pre-Chowhound/poverty-stricken grad student days, my parents let me tag along/sponge off of them on a winter trip to Charleston. And I honestly can't even remember how we found it...am feeling a sudden urge to ask my dad what sparked our interest, because I KNOW he remembers it as something special. If I remember correctly, it was Mom and I that found an ad for it somewhere, and he was the less-than-willing party. I have been trying to figure out how to make Gullah rice ever since - I've never figured out what the "Gullah spices" were. And I believe that trip is when Dad started making shrimp and grits. :)

                                          In response to the OP, I discovered CH when I moved to Toronto and it has been a godsend - I really didn't eat out much before finding it. Moving to a city that offers so many places to eat, and so many cuisines I've never had access to before, all on a limited budget, it has saved me so much time and money to be able to try those things at their best to figure out if I like them. Before I found CH, I was primarily guided by the local free weeklies, because they're the easiest to pick up and find whatever you're in the mood for. I also used to take recommendations from my friends, but learned quickly that a shared choice of career does not always reflect common culinary proclivities. I would've done okay without CH, but it would have taken me a LOT longer to find my favorite places, especially those out in my neighborhood that aren't covered by any downtown publications. When you don't have a car, there is only so far from home you will venture without knowing there's something worth a bus token. :)

                                        2. I used to travel a lot on business in my pre-Chowhound days (still do, though not nearly as much), and maintained an on-line subscription to Zagat. I know Zagat gets a lot of abuse on the boards here, but I have to say it really came through for me on many occasions. Steered me to a nondescript-looking Thai place with wonderful food in an unfamiliar area of London, a great little bistro specializing in rabbit within walking distance of the hotel I happened to be staying at in Paris, even a reasonably decent Italian restaurant in suburban Cincinnati.

                                          It doesn't offer the interactivity or level of detail that Chowhound does, but it saved me from many a dismal meal way back when.

                                          3 Replies
                                          1. re: BobB

                                            I loved Zagat.com - until it stopped being free.

                                              1. re: kattyeyes

                                                With the amount of traveling I was doing then, the $15 a year fee paid for itself many times over. By the time they raised it to $25 I had discovered Chowhound and let my subscription lapse.

                                          2. Go have a drink in a bar and talk up the bartender for restaurant tips.

                                            1. I would have to find another board where people complain about having to tip their servers.

                                              1. A lot of pickup trucks in the parking lot and I also read the yellow pages (sometimes the ads say something that pique my interest). I tend to avoid places that have signs or ads with the word "Cuisine," esp. Chinese-American cuisine.