Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Researching restaurants before traveling pays off

A little research about restaurants in Marigot, St. Martin, led us to a perfect French place called Tropicana. The mahi-mahi (foreground) and flank steak were delicious.

Photos by Lindsey Nair | The Roanoke Times

A little research about restaurants in Marigot, St. Martin, led us to a perfect French place called Tropicana. The mahi-mahi (foreground) and flank steak were delicious.

The Local Village Bar and Restaurant in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos offered a more authentic atmosphere and the great island dishes listed on this beach menu.

The Local Village Bar and Restaurant in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos offered a more authentic atmosphere and the great island dishes listed on this beach menu.

food writer Lindsey Nair

Food writer Lindsey Nair

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On a quest for authentic fish and chips two years ago, my friend and I wandered into a tiny pub in Edinburgh, Scotland.

It had the right look — dimly lit with a wooden bar and shelves, simple tables, and a worn Scottish decor. But when the lone employee jogged over to the Asian noodle joint next door to retrieve our order, we began to have strong doubts.

Great cuisine can turn up where you least expect it, but the food we were served that day looked and tasted as if it had been fished from a Mrs. Paul's box instead of the North Sea.

We found fried local haddock later in the trip at a restaurant in the Shetland Islands, but experiences such as the one in Edinburgh have taught me to never waste precious travel time and money on mediocre restaurants. The world is filled with far too many stellar places that can inject rich memories into a trip.

Knowledgeable travelers know a bit of research in advance can make a colossal difference in the quality of a dining experience away from home. It isn't just for frequent or high-dollar travelers, either. Wouldn't you rather find a cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurant with a unique atmosphere and amazing food than stumble across a place that leaves you feeling cheated?

Making a beeline for a specific restaurant also saves lots of time — time that can be wiled away exploring the rest of the city or relaxing on a beach.

My go-to sites

A number of online resources exist for restaurant research, including two of the most popular, Yelp and Urbanspoon. Both of those services offer mobile apps, but I prefer to search at home before I travel, not while I'm on the road.

My favorite resources are Chow and TripAdvisor.

On Chowhound, a subsection of Chow.com, visitors can start their own discussion threads about a particular restaurant or geographical area, or search previous discussions. That's how I discovered The Wreck of the Richard & Charlene, a tiny restaurant in Charleston, S.C., that is as remarkable on the inside as it is unremarkable from the road.

In fact, The Wreck, as it is often called, looks like an auto-body garage from the front and has no visible sign. When I asked the hotel concierge to clarify directions to the restaurant and he regarded me suspiciously before asking, "How do you know about The Wreck?," I felt I was on the right track.

The Wreck offered outstanding fresh seafood in a large, screened-in dining room with a view of the boats on Shem Creek. We adored it.

Chowhound also clued me in to Guppy's in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., which we enjoyed so much on our first visit that we sought it out again on a later trip. While not as secretive as The Wreck, Guppy's still offered a lovely atmosphere and a wide selection of delectable items served in generous portions at reasonable prices (many dinner entrees were under $20).

It would've been easy to overlook Guppy's with so many restaurants crammed into the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area.

TripAdvisor successes

I'm also a fan of TripAdvisor, because it offers lots of hotel, restaurant and vacation rental reviews, and some of them include pictures. We nixed a possible hotel in New York City after confirming that adjectives such as "cozy" and "convenient" translated to mean "shoe-box sized" and "possibly rat-infested."

Before taking a cruise to the eastern Caribbean this month, I scoured TripAdvisor for dining recommendations in Marigot on the French side of St. Martin and in Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos. Both of the restaurants we found through this research turned out to be highlights of our vacation.

In Marigot, the No. 1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor was a French place called Tropicana, where we spent a lovely lunch at a shady table overlooking the marina. We feasted on roasted mahi mahi and flank steak with delectable sauces, munched the best french fries I've ever tasted and sipped chilled wine and complimentary house-made banana rum. The total price in U.S. dollars was only $50.

In Grand Turk, my craving for authentic jerk chicken and local conch was satiated at the Local Village Bar and Restaurant, another TripAdvisor find. Reviews advised that folks bypass the huge, touristy Margaritaville and head for this tiny beach bar, which serves such fare as conch fritters, conch salad, jerk chicken, fish cakes, lobster sandwiches and fresh coconut juice (not to mention cold beers for $3.50, a big improvement over Margaritaville's $8 price tag for one beer).

The local lad who served us had a big smile and a few jokes for our party. He made us feel like honored guests, not annoying tourists.

People resources

Once in a while, someone calls or emails me to say they're coming to Southwest Virginia and need dining recommendations. I'm always happy to help and am impressed by their determination to find good eats.

Consulting food writers in your destination area before you hit the road is a good idea.

If you know someone who has lived where you're heading or has traveled there, ask them for recommendations. If you wait until you arrive, chat with taxi drivers, shopkeepers and hotel staff.

But be aware that hotel concierges are sometimes rewarded for recommending certain establishments, and locals are not always clued in. One shopkeeper we met in Marigot had never heard of Tropicana.

None of this advice is intended to take away the fun of finding a great restaurant using only your feet, eyes, nose and a sense of adventure. But planning can take the guesswork out of dining in unfamiliar territory and increase the chances of a meal you'll never forget — and not the way I'll never forget that Edinburgh pub.

On the blog How do you research restaurants before traveling? Share your tips at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet