One of the most enjoyable parts of a trip to Europe is the breathtakingly wonderful food. However, it breaks my heart to hear people come back from a trip and say they "didn't try anything new" or "couldn't find the nice places."
Large (and small) European cities are positively overflowing with amazing restaurants - here's how to make sure you're finding the "right" ones - even if they aren't where you'd think!
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*post updated June, 2019
Think about your dining goals before you go
First things first - One of the most important elements of being satisfied with your restaurant choices on vacation is knowing what you are looking for. If you're heading to Paris on a budget, dining out at the Ritz every night might not be an option - and that's perfectly fine! Consider a good cafe! Do not be disappointed if every meal you eat is not "5 stars"- that doesn't mean it won't be good.
No matter what level of restaurant you're looking to frequent, absolutely plan in advance if you even remotely can. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. So many missteps can be avoided with just the slightest bit of advance research (which you're already doing - good for you!!)
When I have my schedule for the day - more tips on scheduling on my planning a trip to Europe blog post - I include a list of about 5 cafe-type/pub-type restaurants for lunch if we're doing to sit down. You never know where you'll end up on a given day, but the more you can pre-research restaurants, the better. Of course, that's not always possible - more on that below. I'd recommend a guidebook such as Rick Steves or Frommer's, or of course your own searching and researching to compile the list. For dinner, I usually select a specific restaurant, rather than leaving it to chance. If I'm not seeing an option in my books, or I'm looking to mix things up, I often ask the hotel and have them make a reservation for me - this can make a world of difference, and can also make you feel more comfortable arriving somewhere, especially if there's a language barrier. We had the most lovely dinner for my 30th birthday during our stay in Paris at the Maison Astor, thanks to a recommendation from the concierge.
Picking a restaurant on the fly while exploring Europe
Now, if you aren't able to plan in advance, or hunger strikes unexpectedly, how do you make sure you're picking the right places?
Walk 3 blocks in any direction from tourist sights
The best food in the city is not going to be found right next to a major tourist attraction - it's just a fact. These restaurants have a steady stream of hungry/bathroom needing tourists to keep their doors open, and original food is not their strong suit. If you're hungry after leaving a tourist attraction and weren't able to select a restaurant in advance, just walk ever-so-slightly away from the tourist attraction. Even a few blocks makes all the difference!! That said - while this sounds simple when you're reading it now, it's a lot more complicated in practice. In order to do this, there may be just a bit of wandering involved, thus, be sure to use the public bathroom in the tourist attraction before you set out looking for lunch. This was a tip I have learned the hard way multiple times.
For example, leaving the Colosseum, thinking I could beat the system and find a quicker bathroom, I skipped the undoubtedly inadequate bathroom facilities and we hit the first restaurant we could find next to the exit. And guess what - it was expensive, crowded, and the food was...fine.
Avoid restaurants where they try to drag you in
It depends on the country, but particularly in Italy and Spain, restaurants' host/hostesses may stand on the cub and try to convince flustered and confused tourists to come into the restaurant. This is different from a host/hostess showing people to their seat, but does appear somewhat similar.
This is not necessarily a sign that you should definitely step away, but it's also not the sign of a super classy affair. (Pictured below is one such place where we stopped for a drink - check out the giant menu). If you're looking for lunch or dinner, I'd generally say keep moving - if you're looking for a quick drink and a bathroom - go for it. You'll generally find tourist-geared food and flashy cocktails.
Avoid plastic/multi-language menus
In general, the smaller the menu, the better, and more authentic the food. You can stand fairly firmly by that rule - long menus with every type of food imaginable (as pictured above) generally indicate expertise in none, and also that many of the items are microwaved upon being ordered. Some restaurants have a separate menu in English as a courtesy for foreign travelers (not just English speakers - remember that English is the lingua franca of Europe most times). These were fairly common in Paris - I would not put these into that category.
In France, for example, many of the restaurants frequented by the locals will display their menus on chalk boards that are changed every day - they use the freshest ingredients and those are always changing!
Look for locals
This is admittedly difficult to do, certainly on your first few days in a city. However, as more time goes by, you'll get better at separating locals from tourists. Another, less nice, way to do it, is to say to avoid places that are visibly full of other tourists - see previous information above.
Anyway, one easy way to do this is at lunch - seek out restaurants with people who are dressed for work! If you're in, for example, the City of London, look for those chic Londoners in their impossibly slimly cut suits - rather than somewhere full of people hauling around suitcases and A-Zs. In Italy and France, look for people drinking tiny glasses of wine (and often smoking) at lunch (for my European friends - this is why we love you! But Americans don't generally drink at lunch, unless it's Saturday or a very special occasion, because we are a bit uptight about that sort of thing :)).
Do keep in mind, places full of locals will provide infinitely better food and an undoubtedly more friendly experience, but remember - the staff are less likely to speak English (they surely can still get you what you need) and they may be less "friendly." Don't be intimidated, as long as you are dressed appropriately, if it's a formal place. If you're concerned about this, definitely check-out my tips on How to Charm the French.
In praise of Paul and Pret in a pinch
Now to address one of the hardest types of food to find, regardless of where you are - quick, not silly expensive, and still satisfying. For many of our lunches, I love nothing more than stopping by a Maison Paul in France and in Great Britain Pret a Manger. Both places are similar - on nearly every corner where there are businessmen and women to be found, offering good quality, fresh sandwiches and soups, coffee, soda, etc. (generally no booze), sit-down option available (remember, Americans, you pay slightly more for that option, which makes sense, but we rarely charge that way), and normally a bathroom with a code that'll be on your receipt. If you're definitely looking for a bathroom, be sure to ask before you make a purchase, because sometimes they don't have one (not common, but a disappointing surprise). If you've already made a purchase when you find this out, they'll often let you take your receipt and pop over to another store down the road that does have facilities.
If you're unsure what to do for lunch, feeling jet-lagged, stressed, or in the midst of a family meltdown, these are such a great option - you won't break the bank, you won't waste time or money on a restaurant that isn't great, and you can always get a fancier dinner that evening with the money you've saved!
Thanks so much for stopping by and I hope you have some phenomenal dining experiences in Europe, just as we always do! And remember - pick restaurants in advance if you can and if you're feeling flustered, hit a Paul or Pret rather than spending too much on somewhere that doesn't look nice!
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