The other day I was discussing the merits of trip advisor with my dad and why I felt passionately about doing your homework on local restaurants before traveling. I wasn’t sure why, but I became quite animated about it…
After some reflection I decided to try put my reasoning into words.
Years of traveling and choosing the most convenient restaurant due its location or because, “this looks nice”, has led to some truly sorry meals. You know the type – white and red table cloth eateries overlooking a piazza in Rome being a classic example! Sadly these tourist-trap restaurants dominate the food scene in most major international cities. But why?
There are, of course, many factors that result in the large number of sad looking tourist trap eateries. The need to cater for less adventurous tourists by serving them the same food they are accustomed to back home being an obvious one (I won’t name nationalities – my own being largely responsible)! I believe, however, the largest single cause to be a lack of knowledge amongst tourists – not because of tourists themselves. Ignorance isn’t necessarily bliss…
Let me explain.
Before the recent surge of online review based apps and websites such as tripadvisor, most people relied on word-of-mouth, or the top choice restaurants in guide books, with which to choose a restaurant. Failing that it was a case of settling for the ‘nice looking’ restaurant conveniently located wherever that might happen to be.
The obvious problem here is the conveniently placed restaurant not having to try because it always finds passing trade among tourists who don’t know any better. Of course not all conveniently located restaurants are bad. A number of restaurants in great locations serve fantastic food. Sadly, however, they tend to get away with charging a little more. Not to say there aren’t exceptions to these generalizations, but from my experience I have found this to be the case much of the time.
So what about tourists who have done a little digging by following the recommendations found in lonely planet or other such guide books (the way I chose restaurants to eat at for a long time)?
Not a bad way to go as invariably the travel writers who have reviewed these places have done their homework. Having said that this method can also result in disappointment. Why? Because of what one friend recently described as the ‘lonely planet effect’ ( no disrespect to lonely planet intended).
When tourists blindly follow only the recommendations found in their guide books, a once fantastic bistro may quickly become another tourist trap as they realise they too, no longer have to try. This has to be backed up with a little up-to-date research on each individual eatery otherwise you may, as I have unwittingly been doing for years, end up contributing to, or worse yet helping create, these tourist traps.
Indeed the more you use it and cross reference reviews on other sites or blogs you begin to understand how to use it. Not to simply choose the restaurant rated number one, but study the individual reviews of any highly rated restaurant carefully.
Note the date.
Are the recently reviewed comments positive or negative? Or are there no recent reviews except several from a coupe of years ago?
Note the number.
If it only has 8 excellent reviews out of a total of 8 reviews it isn’t necessarily a great restaurant. Where as 496 excellent reviews out 523 reviews is a much better indicator.
Note the comments.
Perhaps the most important, the comments will tell you which particular meals are best at a restaurant. Indeed many restaurants specialise in a particular dish (order something different at your peril)! On top of that the comments can allude to recent trends. Are the last few reviews bad? In which case, have things made a turn for the worse? Furthermore is the manager responding to the comments (usually a good sign that she/he cares)? Which language are the reviews in? Many other clues exist within the comments.
Far from fool proof, even the most avid user can be led massively astray when using review based websites. It’s a risk we take using such sites subject to the opinions of largely foreign people. Let’s face it the locals almost always know best when it comes to their food!
Having said I feel, all in all, trip-advisor and the like are a good thing.
With the advent of the well informed foodie traveler who has done his/her research; read the popular review based websites and local magazines; checked the best online blogs and written out his/her must try restaurant list, we are seeing the growth in a new wave of tourists. Tourists who will walk around the corner; hop on the bus or metro across town (or in my case walk two hours in the freezing rain through the centre of Paris on a public holiday when everything except the tourist traps appeared to be closed), to make sure they have the best chance of experiencing the best food a place has to offer.
This is not a good thing because we now know where the best to be had food in a certain city, town or remote village is to be had (although it is part of it). It’s a good thing because it’s forcing the quality of all the other lousy convenient tourist traps to up their game and produce something worthy of their extortionate prices. It’s a good thing because perhaps, one day, that lousy convenient place across the road might have more than just convenience going for it. Then again I might just be dreaming…