This blog covers a lot of places that hidden gems, little places off the beaten track that you might not have thought of visiting. As a result, one of the most common questions I get about the places I reviewed is “How do you go about finding these places?” So I figured it was worth talking about how I go about finding the places that I eat (and then review).
Basically, when it comes down to it, there are two real ways I find good places to eat while traveling: chance and research. The trick is to make the most of both of them.
When I have all the time in the world (which happens surprisingly often with my travel, finding myself in places like Palmdale, CA or Cleveland with nothing to do until tomorrow’s meeting at 9am), one of my preferred techniques is to just drive around and look for the places with good food. Because, quite frankly, a lot of these places do indeed have “the look”. What does a good Offbeat Eat’s place look like?
- It’s generally small. Small places generally have small staffs, so quality is relatively consistent, the owners and staff can afford to spend some time with a customer, and in general, they need to keep their customers happy to stay in business. They usually also have small menus, so they focus on doing a few things well. A near-perfect example of this is Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis. Just shy of 10 feet wide, and having only 14 seats inside, going to Al’s is an intimate experience, one you are sharing with only a few other diners and the people staring over your shoulder.
- It looks like it has been there forever. Probably because it has. One particular spot that drew me in by just having the right look was Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Manhattan Beach, CA. Meeting someone for dinner at another nearby restaurant, I walked by and thought, “That place looks like it’s lifted right out of the early 60s, serving righteous pancakes. I should check it out.” Took two more trips before I was able to get to Manhattan Beach during breakfast hours, but I was well rewarded by the experience. Stan’s Grocery in Yuma resulted from taking a shortcut back from going out to the bar with my coworkers. Similarly, there’s a hot dog place in Cleveland I’ve been wanting to check ever since driving by, Old Fashion Hot Dogs, that my buddy Dennis actually beat me to reviewing…
- Lines. Obviously, if people are waiting in line to get it, they are either the current fad, or have something truly worth waiting for. Usually, I find it to be the latter. In the particular case of pizza, Pizzeria Bianco is worth every minute of the hours-long wait.
- Sometimes adjectives like “grimy”, “tired”, and “gritty” can be good things. One of my friends referred to Wasp’s Diner as “a rundown little crap shack?” But that little crap shack churns out some seriously good food. And some people would be completely afraid of Claudette’s Native Food. Too bad, since that little refurbed U-haul had some seriously good fritters.
However, sometimes chance doesn’t work for you, or you are on a tight schedule. That’s when research comes in handy.
- The best source of recommendations overall is having friends, family, and colleagues that know your tastes and love of Offbeat Eats. I’m not the only one that travels a lot at my workplace, and several of my coworkers and I keep track of good places we find and clue in the others. If I’m going someplace that I don’t really know well, I ask my friends and coworkers, and if they know a place, they’ll tell me. This can even work with places I know well, since I’m still in debt to my coworker John and his wife for pointing me to Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis (“Try the peanut butter. Really. Try the peanut butter.” was the exact quote).
- Other food bloggers. The internet is a really big place, and chances are that someone, somewhere is trying to do for their local burger joint, street food, or neighborhood dive what Offbeat Eats has done for the places I’ve been. This has saved me many times, with the folks at Mmm-Yoso! directing me to some obscure and well-hidden gems in Yuma, AZ (which is well off of just about everyone’s radar). Fun Playing with Food has sent me headed in the right direction in Cleveland. And StephanieDoes has helped me find several nice Providence, RI joints. The resources are out there, you just have to look for them.
- Asking travel and hospitality professionals can work well, too. Airline pilots originally pointed me to Red Iguana and the now-closed Pines Cafe. And hotel staff sent me off searching for Bates Hamburgers.
- Flickr. Really. Good food usually looks delicious as well, and food photography/blogging is really common these days (some even call it “food porn”). You can easily answer questions like “which place in The Mission is best for burritos?” by simply searching on Flickr or Google Images.
- There are also many good online communities searching out food. Jan and Michael Stern’s Roadfood.com is pretty good for finding the sort of places I like in the US. While somewhat New York City area-specific, SeriousEats has some phenomenally good writers (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, for example), and their sub-sites Slice and A Hamburger Today have pointed me at my good places both inside and outside of New York. eGullet is pretty good as well, but can be a little severe to some people as well.
- I’ve actually found Urbanspoon to be increasingly useful, partly because they use people’s blog entries too supplement the shorter yelp-style reviews. Their search function is a little weird, however. (You’ll also notice that I partner with Urbanspoon, since they make it very easy for me to get my reviews linked there).
I should also mention some other resources that aren’t as good, but can do in a pinch.
- Yelp. I truly like the idea of what Yelp has been trying to do, but I’ve found that, at least for my taste in food, it’s just not reliable. While I have found some good places in places new to me, I’ve also had enough questionable Yelp experiences to make me avoid using it as a primary source. Like the time I was in Lakewood, NJ, and all the highly-rated Yelp reviews were for McDonalds and Wendy’s, with both being given 4 stars by many reviewers (I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe that your particular McDonalds is better than the average one…). And I still have a bit of sour taste in my mouth from going into crappy places wielding “People Love us on Yelp!” stickers that sucked, or quite frankly, weren’t even true. But if you can’t find anything else? I’ll admit that the Yelp app on my iPad has gotten some exercise…
- Search Engines and Online Directories. Google is great for looking up stuff, but if you rely on it to find restaurants? Search engines are great at raking stuff in, but not so great at purging the old stuff. You’re likely to pull up to a place that hasn’t been open in years. This has happened to me a few times. This goes for Yelp as well, since experience has shown me that a lot of people need to flag a place as closed before they’ll mark it so, since I can regularly find places that have been closed for years on there, still listed as open.
In any case? I really do want people to find good eats while traveling. Feel free to email me for questions, recommendations, or even if you want me to check out your favorite joint next time I’m in town.