I’ll always remember the meal we had at the little taverna in Imerovigli, Santorini. We walked 45 minutes up the dark, winding caldera streets to enjoy a meal at this particular spot because it was their last night of the season and, a few days earlier, they had served us up some bliss in the form of cold draft beers and stuffed ‘pregnant’ peppers after a hard hike in the hot sun. The dinner at this taverna is not imprinted in my memory because it was excellent. In fact, it was terrible, right down to the 13 euro shrimp that smelled fresh from the microwave. I’ll never forget it for that exact reason: spending lots of money on terrible food hurts like hell.
Some budget travelers are content surviving on cooking their own food in hostel kitchens or apartments, or grabbing supermarket snacks and cheap street food. Others, like us, enjoy a meal out every now and then. It’s not only a great way to sample the local cuisine, but also, if you’ve picked the right place, to do some quality people-watching and experience a culture during its greatest pastime. But finding an authentic, affordable restaurant, especially in touristy towns, can be a bit of a crap shoot. Here’s some tools I use for filtering out the fresh fish from the sea of microwaved shrimp.
Learn how to read reviews
It seems, at least in Europe, that TripAdvisor has replaced Lonely Planet as the stamp of approval for restaurants and hotels. There is good in this: TripAdvisor allows normal folks like you and me a chance to find and provide feedback that in the pre-internet dark ages was only found by word-of-mouth or through professional critics. But the downside of TripAdvisor (and others like Yelp and UrbanSpoon) is that everyone is now a critic; what Bill Smith from Texas hates about a place, you might love, and vice versa.
One way I’ve learned to interpret reviews is to read the bad ones first. Sometimes major criticisms are things that wouldn’t bother me, like funky furnishings or abrupt service. I also look at the number of bad reviews compared to good reviews. If a place is very popular, they could have 30 terrible reviews and still receive 4.5 stars. But 30 terrible reviews is a lot of people who had not only a bad experience, but a terrible one. What do they have to say?
Get off the tourist track
As many travelers before us have warned, avoid the places listed in the guidebook. The touristy areas of town have their benefits, but typically the restaurants aren’t one of them. With some exceptions, restaurants in touristy areas don’t have to impress anyone. They have guaranteed business just based on location not the quality of their food. If if they do provide quality food, the prices will be higher based on location.
Look for restaurants in less touristy, even residential neighborhoods. They have to work a little harder to get and keep customers, and their client base is more likely made up of locals. If it’s a place locals frequent, it’s more likely to be reasonably priced and authentic, not tailored to the generic tourist palate.
But be careful who you ask. Your hotel or hostel receptionist could have kickback agreement with a number of restaurants, and their recommendation may not be based on their own opinion or the quality and price of the restaurant.
Ask friendly locals, like baristas, bartenders, grocers, museum cashiers, or anyone else you strike up a conversation with. Ask other travelers where they’ve eaten. Their tastes and budgets may not match your own but you can get ideas to check out.
Do a walk by
For one of our last nights in Budapest we found a restaurant with good reviews in a neighborhood we were visiting. Everything looked great online, but before going in and taking a seat, we glanced at the menu posted by the door. The menu was mostly boring chicken and pasta dishes and overpriced for what it was. The place was dead and the waitresses were scowling. We walked on and found a more inviting place. Take a look at a place before deciding. Does it feel right? Ask to see a menu. If you feel bad walking away, you can always say you’re looking for a later dinner.
We typically spend on average about $30-40 on dinner a few times per week (we’re still in Europe), and still remain under our $100 daily budget. That doesn’t include stops at the bakery for quick lunches, a gyro or kebab here and there, and post-hike beers. It takes a little detective work to find a spot that’s worth spending those budgeted dollars, but we’ve enjoyed many meals that have left us with positive memories at places like Buregdžinica Bosna in Sarajevo, Roka in Oia, and Pizzadelia in Naxos City (just to name a few). Plus the hunt will work up your appetite.
Do you travel on a budget and still enjoy dining out at restaurants? How do you decide where to eat?