First, give some thought to the purpose of your travels. If you are traveling on business, will you be entertaining customers or clients, or are you traveling to a seminar or meeting by yourself. This is a know your audience thing. Some people aren't in search of the perfect bowl of pho, pad thai or Kobe beef. Also, your employer might not appreciate a reimbursement request for a meal from a famous steak house in a big city. (Personally, I don't turn those in, or if I do, I only request what a normal meal would have cost.)
If the trip is for pleasure, are you going with friends or family? Children? Another audience situation. If your kid is going to throw a fit because there are no chicken strips on the menu of the Indian place you are at . . . well, you get the idea. You should also have a good idea of what you are willing to spend and any time constraints. For instance, if you have tickets for a musical, standing around waiting for a table at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago is probably not going to work. Also, having a Primanti Brothers sandwich in Da Burg at 1:30 when you have a 6:00 reservation at some other place is not a wise move.
You also need to know where you are staying and give some consideration to how you are going to reach your dining destination. Is it a relatively short cab ride away or are you gonna put the cabbies kid through her first year of grad school because you had no idea the place you wanted to go is further away from downtown than the airport. For instance, if you are staying in San Francisco, you need to know that Chez Panisse is across the Bay Bridge in Berkeley and The French Laundry is in Napa Valley.
The number one key to successful dining during travel is to research. I spend more time figuring out and making dining arrangements than I do booking air travel and hotels, by a long shot. In no particular order of significance, here are some resources I consult for finding places to eat.
- The Internet (No forking kidding, there, right?) Specifically, places like the regular food sites, foodnetwork.com, epicurious.com, foodandwine.com. But there are others. Try Chowhound and Egullet, which are sort of message boards/blogs for foodies. You might also try some search engines to see if you can find other blogs- like this one.
- While you are on the internet, you might also see if the website for whatever hotel you are staying at has some local guides. Check those out.
- Try some print resources. The food magazines: Gourmet, Bon Appetite, Food and Wine regularly have stories about new or hot places in bigger communities. Gourmet used to have regular articles every month about restaurants in New York City and San Francisco. Also check travel magazines. Another great print resource are the local city magazines for your destination. An example of this is Chicago Magazine which features a listing of hundreds of restaurants by cuisine and locale. Hell, there's even an Okoboji magazine available. Look around next time you're at the Big Box Book Mart and you'll probably find a magazine for the place you are going.
- Consult people who have been there. If you've got a friend who spent three days in Pittsburgh last year, that might be a good person to ask.
- You might also want to take a look at some cookbooks. Chicago Tribune food writer Bill Rice authored a wonderful red meat cookbook called the Steak Lovers Cookbook a few years ago. In it, he discusses various famous steak houses and other notable dining venues in Chicago and other large cities.
When you settle on some choices, get on-line or on the phone and start making reservations. If you haven't used Open Table, you might want to give it a whirl- it works very well. If you are paying entirely too much for a credit card (which is anything more than zero) you might have to resort to the concierge service to get reservations at certain places. Even then, you better be on the phone with the restaurant. Some of the very high-end places have quirky reservation policies. For instance, if you've been dreaming of going to The French Laundry, you'd damned well better know that you MUST make a reservation 60 days in advance or you're forked. That can literally be the difference between trying to make a reservation for a Friday or Saturday. Also, some places have cancellation policies, just like hotels. The opposite problem, of course, is that some places don't take reservations, at all. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily a clue that you'll get in. If you plan on lunching at Gallatoire's in New Orleans and are not in line hours ahead of time, forget it. Also, be aware of attire requirements. You may get into a particular place without a coat or tie, but you'll feel like an absolute moron.
I generally avoid asking a hotel concierge for a reccomendation, unless I am staying at a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons, which, frankly, never happens. I have this suspicion that the concierge is more concerned about his/her status in the "Hey, Buddy" network than your dining experience. On the other hand, a concierge at almost any hotel nice enough to have such a service might be able to slide you some reservations at a place of your choosing.
Finding good drinking establishments also requires some research, especially if you want to find interesting or noteworthy watering holes. For instance, for me no trip to San Francisco is complete without a stop, or two, at the Top of the Mark- the bar located on the top floor of the Hotel Intercontinental Mark Hopkins. The views are fantastic from this perch at the top of Nob Hill. Speaking of San Francisco, on a recent trip there, we checked out a little joint in the Tenderloin District as a result of research. The bar is called Rye. They served interesting cocktails, such as gimlets made with cucumber and basil. Really good stuff.
Also, when in a different city, make sure you drink like a local. If you are sitting in a bar in Pittsburgh drinking a Miller Lite instead of a bottle of Iron (Iron City Beer, that is), you are an idiot.
Drinking in New Orleans is complicated enought to be a post all by itself- matter of fact, I think I will write that one next.
Whatever you do, when you travel, do your research so you don't miss a great opportunity to expand your perspective a bit.