By Robert St. John
If there is a condom machine in the restaurant’s restroom, you have made a mistake in your choice of dining establishment.
That is one of my rules for dining in Europe. Unfortunately, if you are already in the restroom, it’s probably too late.
Over the course of six months on the European continent I learned a lot. I also took extensive notes and filled a journal with recipes, restaurant recommendations and travel tips. I’ll share a few of those here, so it won’t be “too late” when you are forced to make travel decisions in a foreign land.
Note: I am not allotted enough column inches to publish all of the rules herein, so I’ll skim the surface and cover a broad range of travel topics.
Rule # 43
Never eat at a restaurant in sight of a cruise ship.
The worst of the tourist trap restaurants purchase real estate as close to the cruise ship moorings as possible. They prey on non-adventurous tourists who want to stay close to the ship.
The food will be bad, expensive and unauthentic.
Never eat at a restaurant within a block of a major tourist attraction.
There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, this rule is accurate.
Never eat at a restaurant that displays its menu items with photographs outside of the establishment.
When traveling in a foreign country, it’s always best to eat what – and where – the locals eat. Trust me, locals don’t need photographs of dishes to know what is being offered on the menu.
Research locations through websites such as www.tripadvisor.com. Read the reviews, and discount the outliers that seem to be on a mission. It’s pretty easy to determine enthusiastic and authentic reviews from people who know food.
If the restaurant has a hawker out front, keep walking.
I was amazed at how many tourists I saw getting sucked in by a street-side hawker. The best restaurants don’t need someone on the sidewalk trying to con people into coming inside.
Chinese is a great “go-to cuisine” even in Europe.
After two weeks in Greece, I was all lambed out. I found a Chinese restaurant near our hotel, walked in and it was packed. The four of us were the only non-Chinese customers in the place – a great sign. We ate there two more times during our stay.
It’s hard to find a good Chinese restaurant in this part of the United States. Most in my area are all-you-can-eat buffets that use the same canned sauces as the next all-you-can-eat buffet. In Europe, we never ate a bad meal at a Chinese restaurant.
In Europe, always book a hotel near the city center.
In major cities, there are many centers, but do a little research into what you want to do, and what you want to see, and you’ll usually be in the right spot.
If you are on a budget like we were, Google the locations of five-star hotels and then look for the three- and four-star hotels nearby.
Rule # 13
Always verify your room rate with a few of the web services to make sure you are not overpaying.
I had great luck with www.hotels.com. I found excellent hotels in city centers at very inexpensive prices.
In Spain they have a saying about food, “If it doesn’t kill you, it will just make you fat.”
I put on 15 pounds in Spain alone. In the Southern part of the country, most of the food is fried. In Seville, summer temperatures can reach 130 degrees. Therefore, there are no ovens in their kitchens.
A Spanish man gave me a description of the perfect European man: “A British policeman, a German mechanic, a French chef, an Italian lover and a Swiss banker.”
He continued to describe the antithesis of the perfect European man as: “A British chef, a French mechanic, a German policeman, a Swiss lover, and an Italian banker.”
Make friends. We saw some amazing sites – world-class sunsets, massive cathedrals, priceless artwork, beautiful mosaics, and architecture that humbled us at every turn. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime educational experience.
However, all of the art, culture and history we saw were someone else’s accomplishments. While there, we made lifelong friendships. Those were our accomplishments.
We traveled from Greece, where we were steeped in “what was,” to Milan where we met the most kind and generous people, and moved into the “what is.”
Today, we carry the memories of what was, and look forward to creating memories with what is.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.