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Aug 27, 2010 06:01 PM

Restaurant tourist traps

What are they?

I would define them as:

- The restaurants that are in every guidebook and on every tourist site that may have been good or even great at one time but the glory is gone and like the aging beauty queen they rely on long faded reputations ... We're so thilled to make your aquaintance, Miss Desmond.

- Restaurants in every guidebook and on every tourist site because tourists are just not familiar with the local cuisine and go there because they are told to and the food is exotic to them so they think it is good and recommend it to others.

- Restaurants near local tourist attractions that just don't have to try. The food may be edible and ok, but the prices are all about location, location, location.

In the latter category would be most of SF Fisherman's Wharf, anything near the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and any joint with a barker in front. If you go to something like that, you deserve what you get.

Category two is a lot of what is in Chinatown in SF. There's good stuff there, but there's usually better elsewhere. It is most of the places recommended in Guatemalan guidebooks. I'm going to virtually slap the next person who tells me they visited GT and it doesn't have good food. Eat otuside the tourbook. LEARN something about the cuisine before going.

In the first category would be La Fonda de la Calle Real in Antigua, GT. I'll do a separate report on that on the Central American board, ripping it in little pieces, chewing it up and spitting it out, but it got me thinking about the subject.

That's not to say there's not gems amid the detritus ... you'll find diamonds if you look hard enough at your local dump.

So what restaurants or areas should have eating travel advisories issued?

No actual reports .... you can do that on your local board. Just name names and give a brief reason why it qualifies.

BTW, for your gratuitous pleasure, this was almost a $10 (USD) breakfast at La Fonda de la Calle Real. For perspective, a dinner entree can be had for that at most nice (and delicious) restaurants in that city. The black blob to the left is refried beans. That little dry, black turd next to the egg was chorizo.

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  1. My personal guideline for avoiding the tourist trap is:
    (these are generalizations and there's a chance of missing something good)
    Avoid restaurants in high tourist traffic areas, hotels, shopping centers or with a "view".

    When in a city I'm unfamiliar with I ask several "locals" where they like to go (get a consensus if I can). I might even go to the rec'd place and look through the window at the food being served before I make a decision.

    I'd rather eat a McDonald's Big Breakfast than pay $10 for what you got or a $10+ breakfast at a 4 star hotel if I have to foot the bill.

    25 Replies
    1. re: monku

      Seriously I had a typical Guatemalan breakfast at Burger King at 1/3 the price that was better than this. It actually was pretty good.

      Yeah ... fancy restaurant hotels are a good one. I'll never forget the instant Folgers coffee I got at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC when I stayed there. I think I paid over $5 bucks for it. Whatever the price, it was outrageous. They should have sent Juan Valedez up to my room and had him personally roast the beans and brew my java for the money they charged.

      Seriously the quality of room service food seems be at the other end of the spectrum the better the place ... five star hotel = one star room service food. The ultimate gouce. Sinceoom service food is always obscenly priced, why can't they give you a decent meal?

      Looking is good as well. We were one of the first tables at La Fonda and my friend noted that two women had walked in, looked at what was on the tables and walked out,

      1. re: rworange

        Part of the fun is in the "hunt".
        A great way to meet people and never met anyone who gave me a hard time.

        Wasn't there a commercial many years ago where they served Folgers at some fancy hotel?

        1. re: monku

          Yes - here's that commercial. Weird how the background music turns all ominous:

        2. re: rworange

          I disagree about the fancy restaurant hotels being "tourist traps" (although with generalizations there are always going to be counter examples). By that definition about 95% of the restaurants in Vegas would be labeled "tourist traps" and certainly do not think that is the case.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            I was going to disqualify LV because I realize the large casinos are probably giving the big name players a break on their leases to get them there.

            Knew someone might bring that up.

            1. re: monku

              I think there are other less obvious examples than Vegas. Phoenix comes immediately to mind, although generally speaking the Phoenix metro area reminds me of that opening scene in Mad Max -- just a vast dessert wasteland.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                No. I didn't say that. I said for the most part room service food at good hotels is tourist trap food. I don't understand that because some of these hotels have great restaurants. It just doesn't seem to get to the rooms. Breakfast is an especially abused meal because ... seriously ... you are kind of trapped ... it is so much easier to order in when just waking up with the chow being delivered bedside.

                1. re: rworange

                  This is just one data point, but I must admit the room service breakfast at the Four Seasons in Mexico City was stunningly perfect in all respects.

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      One more datapoint. I've found the Four Seasons does an exemplary job om breakfasts all over. At least palo alto, Denver, Taipei and a couple others I can't recall right now.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    ipsedixit: "Phoenix metro area reminds me of that opening scene in Mad Max -- just a vast dessert wasteland."

                    I'm guessing you meant DESERT wasteland.

                    When was the last time you were there? 1965? You are clearly misguided here. Certainly downtown Phx leaves a lot to be desired, but Central/Biltmore area and Scottsdale offer exciting restaurant options.

                    1. re: globocity

                      Yes, "desert" not "dessert".

                      Actually, nowadays there's probably more exciting downtown options than there are in the Biltmore area. NOCA might be the only noteworthy place up north (and maybe Delux), but short of that almost everything there seems to be bad copycats of the glitzy Scottsdale dining scene (e.g. Crush, Stingray Sushi), part of the ever expanding Fox restaurant group (Zin Burger), or a chain (Capital Grille, Ruth's Chris).

                      At least in the downtown area you've got new places like Bliss & reBar, Nobuo at Teeter House, The District, and yet to open places like Silk Sushi, LGO, as well as old standbys like Pizzeria Bianco, Gallo Blanco, PastaBar, etc.

                      But, lets be clear. I'm not saying that there are no good dining options in Phoenix. In fact, I'm on record as being big fans of Kai, Elements, Posh and Quiessence.

                      But some of the better restaurants in Phoenix (e.g. District, Kai, J&G, T Cooks, etc.) are part of hotels and resorts, and not something I would consider "tourist traps".

                      Just sayin.

                2. re: ipsedixit

                  Maybe I'm strangely lucky, and only moderately experienced, but I've found hotel restaurants and hotel room service food to be excellently done almost always--just pricey. That's based on perhaps a dozen experiences.

                  I'm not counting many more ho-hum or worse breakfasts at middle-level hotels for our many roadtrips. That's always forgettable. The only memorable hotel breakfast I've ever had was at Le Parker Meridien in New York City.

              2. re: monku

                If I had a dime for everytime I asked a "local" for where they like to go, and got told about their favorite all you can eat buffet, I'd be 512curtains.

                1. re: 512window

                  Of ocurse it's important to 'read' the reaction of the local you just asked. The ideal response is:

                  "Oh I have this favorite place with the best ______, but you probably won't like it."

                  1. re: Steve

                    An unexpected new strategy I discovered in Guatemala. Take the locals out to dinner at a place recommended by a tourist guide. They take pity on you and show you the real food. As a result of that surprise strategy, I have had outstanding dobladas, amazing atoles, fabulous tacos china (egg rolls ... Chinese is big here), the most wonderful sandwiches (thumbs up Pan Freddy) and been led to the tastiest dives. Seriously, the food at this joint for $3 with drink was so superior to La Fonda ... and the people were nicer too.

                    Ain't no local going to recommend you go there if you ask. I scored that one after dragging someone to yet another mediocre Guatemala City tourist restaurant.

                    My trip to La Fonda scored me a recommendation to a local lady who makes dinner for workers every day. My friend is going to keep me informed on the menu and when she cooks some of her best stuff, he will give me a call and she will deliver to my door.

                    So the trip to La Fonda wasn't a total waste

                    Actually, that strategy works with me in SF. Someone from out of town goes to or drags me to some dreadful place and I feel compelled to take them to places that are really wonderful and where real people eat.

                    But ... yes ... when you ask people where they eat that is exactly the response you usually get
                    "Oh I have this favorite place with the best ______, but you probably won't like it."

                    1. re: Steve

                      Servers and bartenders are often good recources for restaurant recs. They know the good food joints and they know the staff. I'll have breakfast and ask my server where I could find a good locals lunch/dinner spot.

                      1. re: lynnlato

                        Another classic technique is to ask a taxi driver where he eats.
                        Or if you want something classier, ask where he takes his wife for her birthday.

                        1. re: DC in DC

                          Cheesecake Factory for the Mrs. Birthday.

                          Why the assumption that all cab drivers have good taste?

                          1. re: DC in DC

                            Don't ask them to take you to a strip club in Las Vegas.

                            1. re: monku

                              I actually (drunkenly) asked a cab driver in vegas for a local hole in wall off the strip. I had meant food. I may not have been that intelligible.
                              He dropped us off at a stripclub.

                              1. re: hyacinthgirl

                                Cabbies in LV get a bounty for taking people to certain strip clubs. Maybe the only word the cabbie knew was the word "strip".


                            2. re: DC in DC

                              i personally know 5 cab drivers.
                              not one of them has any real sense of taste.
                              would avoid going to cab drivers for recommendations.

                              a cabbie that i knew when i lived in NY was taking cash pay offs from some of the touristy delis and from pizzerias to bring tourists to their establishments for "genuine" ny deli and "genuine" ny pizza.

                              another guy was getting free food and coffee to bring tourists to specific restaurants and fast food places.

                              1. re: westsidegal

                                Out here near Dulles Airport in VA, I'd ask a cabbie where to get some good Afghani food. Nothing else!

                                1. re: Bob W

                                  Great point, thought the answer would likely be "at my home."


                    2. The most egregious example I can think of was on our way to see the Bayeux Tapestry. There is no parking at the Tapestry, and everyone is directed to the car park, a few blocks away. The places along the street are completely unappetizing and pricey for what you get. We stopped at a place that featured cold meat salads and an English menu - both designed to appeal to the British. The staff is openly contemptuous - in French- of the food and the clientele. But you stop there or go without because nothing will be open after you see the Tapestry. If I was alone, I would have preferred to go hungry....

                      My favorite strategy now to avoid tourist traps is to plot out the Chowhound recommended places - usually not at a major tourist destination- but many times on the way from one to the other, and I make an extra stop.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Steve

                        I was there 2 summers ago, traveling solo with a tour group. We broke for lunch and everyone was in search of a galette. I wondered around the town on my own and found a wood burning pizza place. Instead of wine and galette, I ordered pizza and beer. The funny part was that a group of six from another bus sat down next to my table. The women were going on and on about ordering galettes. One of the guys turned to my table and looked at my lunch. It was pizza and beer for the whole table:)

                      2. The partner I frequently travel with likes to ask the hotel front desk for recommendations. I would say most of those turned out to be tourist traps in the area (with some exceptions especially if we asked a five-star hotel), and so if I am not too tired or desperate at the time, I would usually try to gently steer us away from those recommendations, even if it means taking a risk looking for the local gems, because I often have no clue and can only rely on gut feeling.

                        26 Replies
                        1. re: tarteaucitron

                          My family and I visited New Orleans in the late '90's. While we were checking in we asked the front desk clerk where he ate lunch. He directed us to a very small hole in the wall off of Canal Street (IIRC it was the opposite end of Canal from the French Quarter) called Two Sisters. It was one of the best of several great meals we had on that vacation. I've retold this story many times and everyone assumes I mean the very famous "Court of Two Sisters". This was a very tiny place that made everything from scratch to order. I remember it was off of a dirt road. I wonder if it survived Katrina.

                          So maybe a better question to ask the staff is "Where do you eat?"

                          1. re: amethiste

                            That is a lucky instance (and I have been to some memorable hole-in-the-wall places in New Orleans myself)! And yes, that question is a great way to approach it.

                          2. re: tarteaucitron

                            Sometimes the front desk and concierge are in cahoots with the tourist places.

                            1. re: monku

                              Yes--not just hotel people but other business people. We were directed to about the worst dimsum place I've ever been to that way and the person highly recommended it--note to self: if they have a stack of business cards from the restaurant, they're likely in cahoots.

                              1. re: chowser

                                Yes and if they give you a card that entitles you to a free appetizer that should tip you off as well!

                              2. re: monku

                                Yes, that is what I always suspected! But sometimes it is hard to say to someone: "I know we are very hungry now but why don't we just ditch those recommendations, and walk for a few blocks to try find something else?"

                                1. re: tarteaucitron

                                  hotel concierges get cash and drink-tab kickbacks from tourist trap restaurants, strip clubs, etc. for funneling out of town customers to them--often a $5-$10 "bounty" per head. the better food is almost invariably elsewhere.

                                  1. re: soupkitten

                                    I suppose I'll try to ask a friendly bellboy next time, and maybe give them a small tip instead then!

                                    1. re: tarteaucitron

                                      Better to ask a cab driver, or housekeeping.

                                      1. re: ipsedixit

                                        Cab drivers in LV are known to steer customers to certain strip clubs good or bad for a price, you think they wouldn't do the same for restaurants?

                                        Nothing against housekeeping personnel, but I don't think they're going to be much help.

                                        1. re: monku

                                          At a motel in Carpinteria, California, I overheard a housekeeper placing a telephone order in Spanish from a taqueria. I asked her about it, and she started to wax eloquent about the food - but she warned me it was just a dive. Ah, heaven. One of the best meals of my life.

                                          1. re: monku

                                            Every generalization has exceptions.

                                            RE: cab drivers. I always extend a tip beforehand for a good restaurant recommendation, or anything else they can provide me info on ... So, yes, I do pay "more" for a restaurant rec from a cabbie, but in the long run I think it's worth it (most of the time).

                                        2. re: tarteaucitron

                                          Better to ask your bartender or the first server you encounter. They are in the know and work in the industry - tell them what you want (casual, upscale, hole-in-the-wall) and they will point you in the right direction most times.

                                          1. re: lynnlato

                                            I'd be leery of asking the bartender or server I encountered if they were serving me at a tourist trap.

                                            1. re: monku

                                              Well yeah. But the idea is to avoid the tourist traps, no? I wouldn't trust the opinion of anyone at Joe's Crab Shack or Bob Evan's... I meant that if you find a place you like, you can trust that the staff there knows of other quality places.

                                              1. re: lynnlato

                                                Just tagging this onto yours but it could be others also. I find often that their intentions may be good but they don't know how adventurous I am (which is PLENTY) so they play it safe. I've found it better to ask where do YOU go and to really hammer home that the divier (or whatever) the better.

                                              2. re: monku

                                                I agree. Bartenders and servers know about and care about food just as little as any other random stranger. Skip strangers. Go to sources you trust. The notion of "asking locals" is absurd. I'd just as soon ask a random local in Boston as I would ask my neighbors where they eat.

                                                1. re: tommy

                                                  Works for me more times than it doesn't.

                                                  1. re: tommy

                                                    There's always another way to avoid getting burned; as soon as you arrive look at the menu (hopefully conveniently posted outside, or better yet look it up online before heading out).

                                                    Big red flags include things like: phony food from all over the place (Mexican here, Italian there, Thai on the next page...), a full page of California roll variants, a menu that looks straight out of the TGI Friday's playbook, kids menu on the back page, etc.... See such a warning sign, turn and leave. Problem averted.

                                                    1. re: TexSquared

                                                      Weirdly enough, I ate at just such a place today. And to up the ante, it was in a shopping mall ... not a tourist trap thingy, but usually not a good sign.

                                                      I kept reading they had a good burger, and they did.

                                                      The exception to every rule. Then again it was not in the US ... so that may explain it.

                                                      Weird place that looked so much like an American chain I had to ask if they were US-based. Nope. They sort of did American so well that they out-Americaned American joints.

                                                      Seriously, I'd eat there if they were in the US. It was an example of what a good chain could be ... only three locations so far though.

                                                      1. re: rworange

                                                        why the reticence to tell where and what the place is?

                                                        1. re: thew

                                                          Wrong board and the name was irrelevant here as it is NOT a tourist trap.

                                                          If I had posted on the Central American board I would have linked to the report. As it is, I just downloaded the photos to my pc and it will be a while before I post. I want to post about the fabulous Cafe Saul first. I love you and your perfect crepes Saul E Mendez.

                                                          Anyway, I just thought it was interesting that someone mentioned this since Skillets set off all those warning bells for me as well.

                                                          I first saw the joint when I was at the restaurant next door, Nais Aquarium ... which IS a tourist trap ... but the food is acceptable enough and actually the prices aren't bad. Their hook is having the largest indoor restaurant aquarium in the world with hundreds of fish from huge sharks to tiny brightly colored tropical fish (which I guess aren't tasty to the sharks ... or they restock a lot). My report

                                                          I knew what I was getting into there, but watching the fishies is pleasant so the gimmick is ok for me. I probably won't eat there again, but a drink would be nice.

                                                          When I saw Skillets on that visit nestled next to a toney Pizza Hut (there is such a thing) my thought was ... "Like I'll ever step foot inside THERE".

                                                          Then it kept coming up with good burger references when I was looking for more info on the Oakland Mall.

                                                          To set up even more warning bells, their thing is that all the menu items and all the slogans are in English. A good part of the staff speaks good English. AND they own The Bagel Factory in the same mall (haven't got that far yet ... it is a HUGE mall).

                                                          One menu item cracks me up ... a breakfast pizza called Sophie's Choice ... now doesn't that fire up your appetite.

                                                          Actually there were a lot of intentionally funny names (I hope). Horny banana - bananas Foster, Hibachi pupu - s'mores, flying buffalos - buffalo wings. There are sweet pizzas such as a peach cobbler or Strawberry Fields, a pizza with strawberries, of course.

                                                          There's even "Mom's apple pie". Danger, Will Robinson ... warning, warning... run in the other direction.

                                                          Kid's can have regular, chocolate, vanilla or strawberry milk ... not milkshakes ... milk.

                                                          It's part 50's with photos from that period on the menu. The staff uniforms have a 50's Gene Kelly sort of look to them.

                                                          By all conventional rules, it should have stunk to high heavens, but it was really good.

                                                          Here's some untouched photos straight from the camera (except for resizing).

                                                          The burger below had onion rings, bacon, bbq sauce and a thick slab of melted cheese that had been browned under a broiler which was a brilliant concept.

                                                          I'm not a French fry person usually, but these were fabulous and I scarfed them all down with my Heinz ketchup.

                                                          However, look at that breakfast menu ... does it scream Denny's, TGI Friday's, etc

                                                          It is one of those exceptions to the rules.

                                                          And ... the irony of the day is that I finally ate at this street cart I've been salivating over every time I've walked by. It had all the signs of greatness, delicious aroma from the plump longaniza flecked with herbs being cooked on a charcoal grill. The bun was burnt, the longiza under-cooked and the rest meh.

                                                          Rules are meant to be broken.

                                                          They are working on the website, but here's the Skillets facebook page with lots of photos from their menu. En espanol.

                                                          Hibachi pupu (s'mores)

                                                          Lunch specials that include shrimp a go go, Iberiica pizza and a Bahai burger with beef patty and shrimp.





                                                          Far, Far East salad

                                                          French onion soup

                                                          Baked eggs florentine ... ignore the bread ... it's a Guatmalan thing.

                                                          Boston pina colada pizza ... what? Why Boston ... not a place for pina or colada?

                                                          Matilda's ciabata

                                                          Flying buffalo

                                                  2. re: monku

                                                    I've never asked a bartender for a reccomendation. But I was once visiting Chicago and after talking to the the old Irish bartender at some fancy downtown after work bar, he told me about some local bars where the beer was better and the crowd would be friendly and local. He was right and it wasn't a tourist trap bar.

                                                2. re: tarteaucitron

                                                  the bellboys at mid-priced hotels are not normally making enough money themselves to
                                                  1) actually eat at a variety of decent restaurants
                                                  and, often
                                                  2) don't have the leisure time to drive around town to check out many restaurants.
                                                  (too many people giving them a "small tip" like you were intending to do for them to be going out to decent restaurants)

                                                  at the santa monica fairmont the parking managers was going to college at night. he wasn't living the high life, just working, studying, and going to class.

                                                  in another one of the local high-end hotels the bellman is an avid surfer. the last thing he'd know about was where to get good grub.

                                                  the concierge basically only recommends "safe" restaurants within two blocks of the hotel (i.e. restaurants that are main stream). basically as long as he recommends something within the desired price category most people are satisfied.

                                                  1. re: westsidegal

                                                    Good points about the "palates" of those, who might recommend a restaurant.

                                                    I have had great results with hotel concierges, but also some, sort of like the references to the "cabbies" above.

                                                    I try to talk-up the concierge, before going for their recs. I can often tell if they know good food, and good restaurants, or just "phoning it in."

                                                    Before a recent trip to Sydney, I did a half-dozen e-mails with the concierge group. Soon, I found that they were on the same page, as I was. We had a few restaurants, and they filled in the blanks. One of mine sort of bombed, as did one of theirs. Otherwise, everything was just great!

                                                    Oh, and the "bombs" came highly recommended by CH, and several other such Web sites. Maybe we hit those on their "bad night?" Still, with 10 recs, 8 were excellent, and 2 just were not. I could not have done that well, if I had just looked at a bunch of travel books. Also, those 8, that WERE excellent, were so at ALL levels, so those made up for the "bombs."

                                                    Such is life.


                                        3. Latter category, Mi Nidito in Tucson. Thirty-five years ago it was heaven in the Sonoran desert. They became famous, and you had to wait outside for a really long time just to get in the place, then President Clinton ate there, now you have to be there a few minutes before it opens to get in right away, longer on Sunday. Last two times I went I was discouraged to see that the cheese oozing out of my chile relleno wasn't real queso or cheddar and probably not real at all. Didn't taste real, either. A lot of their food is still wonderful, but it kills me to see those types of changes in what a lot of locals used to consider a mecca for Sonoran Mexican.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: EWSflash

                                            You make a good point. There are "tourist traps" and then restaurants that are very popular with tourists, but which may have superior food. And, overtime, one can evolve into the other if the outsized demand is such that the owner chooses to allow its standards to slip.

                                            Certainly there are chow-worthy restaurants that are tourist-popular, and, with the proliferation of media -- like this Site and TV shows like Bourdain's -- the tourist-popular restaurants are developing very large followings. Here in Chicago, for example, Hot Dougs has developed such a reputation that the line is often 90 minutes. A similar frenzy is developing for the Girl & the Goat, the restaurant recently opened by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard. Similarly, the "buzz" on this site for Chez L'Ami Jean in Paris, has contributed to a frenzy of people trying to eat there (I passed up 2 years ago when they offered me a reso at 5:30 but said we'd have to be out by 7 pm.)

                                            To return to the original poster's question, I agree that restos with a view -- especially if at the top of a high building -- rarely have good food. Go for drinks there, and eat elsewhere, unless you've done your research and have it on reliable authority that the food is good (thinking of Everest, here in Chicago, which despite the view, is great).

                                            1. re: masha

                                              I'll add a caveat--if the place is way off the beaten track and has a nice view, it could have great food.

                                              1. re: chowser

                                                Good example is that place in Emigration Canyon, up in the hills overlooking Salt Lake City. The locals endorse it, and it really is quite good. What is it called, Ruths? Nice view, good food, way off the beaten path (or actually, literally on a beaten path, heh).

                                                1. re: chowser

                                                  I live in a resort area, and of the two 'waterfront' restaurants I'll recommend to others, one of them involves an extended drive through a military reservation and the warning to not hit the owner's free range chickens in the parking lot when you get there.

                                                  A good number of the other places I'll recommend tend to be unassuming looking storefronts located in a strip mall anchored by a grocery store.

                                            2. Most places around high-traffic tourist areas (no duh) - Oranienburger Str. in Berlin-Mitte, Friedrichstr., Potsdamer Platz, Kollwitzplatz, Kudamm. Couldn't pay me to eat anywhere in most of the places there. There are exceptions, but you really have to know about them, or venture into a side street.

                                              Oh, and having Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie "like" a place is a sure way for the resto to be ├╝ber-hyped, and subsequently sub-par. Meh.