My continuing series of how to make your next vacation more local focuses on food and how to find local food experiences when you travel. We all have to eat – but the question is where should we eat when we travel? Connecting through food has been bringing families and cultures together for years, and now there an increased desire to interact more locally and find more meaningful connections and relationships when we travel. Doing this through food is a great way to infuse some ‘local’ on your vacation. Or maybe you don’t want to be social, but you do want to eat at restaurants where the locals go to eat for a more authentic experience. I will help you cover all the bases!
Connect to the Local Restaurant Scene
You want to find the popular local restaurants, but it’s hard to decipher through all of the tourism hype. Let’s face it – no New Yorkers ever go to eat near Times Square unless they have Broadway tickets. The understanding is that Times Square is for tourists. As a tourist, how do you find where the locals go?
If you don’t know anyone in that city that you can get recommendations from, then book a food tour the 1st day you are in a destination. Food tours generally teach you about the food culture of an area and give you great ideas on where to go! They are usually put on by a person that lives there and is somehow connected to the foodie scene. When researching food tours, just send them a quick question and ask about the background of the guide before booking.
I always recommend this to people visiting NYC. As someone who lived there I regularly went on food tours as it was a great way to learn about new neighborhoods AND get new restaurant recommendations. Most food tours are walking tours where you walk around a neighborhood and learn the history of an area, but also try out various cuisines throughout the tour. The portions are normally smaller so that you can get a variety of food samples. But every tour I have done has been plentiful so come hungry. The tours normally provide a map or list of the restaurants you visit during the tour so you can refer back to them and potentially make reservations during your stay for a longer, proper meal. The restaurants also often offer discounts to people who took the tour. The guides are normally enthusiastic about recommending other restaurants in the city too.
If you are in a country that is known for street food but it is all foreign to you, then definitely book a tour to learn about the different specialties of the area and to decrease your trepidation at trying new things at the outdoor markets. I did this in Vietnam with my niece by taking a street food tour run by locals. It made the Vietnamese food less intimidating and I was able to try much more during my visit.
I’ve had similar success in these cities too with food tours to get me on the road to better understanding the destination’s food culture as well as garner more great local recommendations:
“Beautiful things happen when you bring people and food together.” Hila said when explaining why she wanted to be involved in hosting strangers in her home for dinner via Eatwith.com
Eat with Locals in their Homes
Much like Airbnb.com brought the average traveler inside people’s homes as an alternative to hotels, there is another craze beginning similar to this with food. Locals invite strangers into their home for a dinner party. People attend these dinner parties in lieu of going to a restaurant. The people who are hosting these experiences normally fall into two categories; people who use it to serve as a platform to gain valuable cooking experience or launch a professional cooking career, and those who passionate about food and enjoy having people in their home and entertaining. It’s very similar to an Airbnb model where a website facilitates the search for home restaurants or dinner parties around the globe and then provides reviews from both the host and the attendee which provides a safety element to something that might seem strange.
Read the reviews, check out the menus and pictures from the host’s past parties and then decide if the price is right to book! It’s comparable to going to dinner in a restaurant and you still get ‘waited on’ as if you are in a restaurant. However one big difference is that these dinners are meant to be social, so you are normally seated at a communal table and encouraged to meet your fellow diners. Sometimes alcohol is provided with the prices and sometimes you bring your own. You can interact with the host before hand too if it makes you feel more comfortable about eating in a stranger’s home.
There is not one website that has really taken over this space yet – but I have tried a couple that are on their way to world bookings. Else you can also find very specific local dining experience websites for a specific city if you just search.
Bookalokal – locals host guests in their own home for a dinner party. The one I went to in Brussels Belgium was a combination of expats, locals, and travelers. I had a great time at the dinner meeting new people and swapping stories over more than a few beers! I walked away with new recipes, knowledge on what beer to order in restaurants, restaurant recommendations, sites to see, ideas for neighborhoods to check out, email addresses of new friends – and a very full stomach.
EatWith.com – available in 31 countries, just go to the site and type in a city to see if they have a host. The same idea as BookaLokal where hosts throw dinner parties. They have a vetting process which is quite thorough. The events have a mixture of locals and travelers typically attending. I went to one recently in New York City in Brooklyn and had a great time meeting a bunch of locals who were food enthusiasts – plus it was cheaper than eating a similar meal in a restaurant. It was very social and typically in these situations (like BookaLokal) the hosts sits and eats with their guests. Once again I walked away with local restaurant advice and more insight into what it was like to be a New Yorker.
“Closed door” restaurants are also popping up all over these days in large cities. And they are extremely popular in Buenos Aires. These are basically eating experiences in people’s private homes. Not exactly a restaurant, and not exactly a dinner party among friends. However it is a great way to have some amazing food, experience local living, and meet a bunch of other people – locals and travelers alike. Some of these have communal tables and some are set up more like a restaurant with multiple tables and reservations – but held in a person’s home. I went to one in Buenos Aires called Casa Salt Shaker. It was communal, but it also felt a bit more like a restaurant as the host/chef didn’t sit and eat with us.
Try one of these food experiences on your next vacation and you’ll be getting more local in no time!