I was inspired to start this project by the American food writer Calvin Trillin. He lamented then that when you’re travelling and you ask hotel receptionists to recommend an interesting local restaurant, they send you to tourist traps – steel and glass boxes spinning around on the top of skyscrapers or fake wood cottages with names like “Maison de la Casa House Continental cuisine”.
Trillin was particularly down on the word “continental”. His rules of thumb included: “If a restaurant says it offers ‘Continental cuisine’, inquire which continent they are referring to, and be wary if the continent is Australia.”
That was needlessly offensive, even in the days before Australia was a gastronomic powerhouse, so I decided to develop my own set of questions.
My list was designed primarily for Australians travelling within Australia, but I like to think most of the guidelines work equally well overseas.
When I’m travelling, I divide the world into Spontaneous countries and Research countries. Spontaneous countries have a culture of caring about the pleasures of the table, so visitors benefit from what the locals take for granted. You can drop into almost any eating place and be confident of getting a meal that is at least interesting. Examples are France, Italy, Spain and Thailand.
Research countries have a history of perceiving food as fuel, designed simply to build up strength for work. A visitor needs to do a lot of homework to find good cooking there. Examples are Britain and the US.
There’s more at the link.
Here are some excerpts from Mr. Dale’s current list of warning signs and criteria.
2. A restaurant with a pepper grinder on every table is likely to be good (as opposed to a restaurant where the waiters thrust a metre-long [yard-long] pepper grinder into your ear).
5. A restaurant where the waitstaff are required to wear archaic costumes is unlikely to be state of the art. Particularly pirates. And medieval serving wenches.
9. Restaurants more than 100 kilometres [about 62 miles] from the coast are unlikely to specialise successfully in seafood.
14. A restaurant with a pun in its name and puns all over its menu may take its cooking equally seriously – except for Thai restaurants, where a pun in the title is mandatory.
16. The number of spelling errors on a menu is inversely proportional to the quality of the cooking.
21. A restaurant that lists four pasta shapes in one column and four sauces in another column, and invites you to “mix ‘n’ match”, is unlikely to be run by an Italian.
There are many more at the link. From my somewhat more limited experience (African bush food being the exact opposite of cordon bleu in far too many cases!), I can attest that many of his criteria are pretty much what I’ve found, too.
Oh, yes – riddle me this, please, fellow Americans. Why on earth do so many people refer to catfish and crawfish as “seafood” – not to mention river or lake fish as well? They’ve mostly never been within a good country mile of the sea! I was raised to use the term “seafood” to refer to the harvest of the sea itself – saltwater fish, shellfish, etc. However, almost every American restaurant I’ve been to lists freshwater fish, etc. among its seafood dishes. Very strange!
That conundrum aside, Bon appetit!