Nobody wants to eat bad food for which they’re paying good money. That’s especially true when they’ve already gone to the trouble and expense of traveling to an unfamiliar destination. Despite the plethora of information available online, in books and in the media, it’s still tricky culling through the choices, ranging from ordinary to out-of-this world restaurant experiences, whether you crave a memorable hoagie or an elegant, delicious dinner. That’s because everyone (especially those that are failing to attract a regular local customer base) wants your business, and they’ll jump through all kinds of hoops (some more honestly than others) to get it. This is true pretty much everywhere, but in a tourist-driven economy such as Charleston’s, which greets nearly half a million tourists every year, it’s a striking reality.
Here are a few things to look out for and some advice on where to look:
1) Be Wary of Excessive, Seemingly Everywhere Advertising
I’m all for advertising and truly respect its crucial role in educating and informing consumers and marketing goods and services. I sold it successfully for years largely because I believe in its viability as a source of information and revenue. But, unlike editorial from reliable sources, it has an inherent bias. Nobody is going to come right out and tell you their product is bad. Thus, most advertising states or implies that their product and service is good and/or something you need or want, and hopefully give you credible reasons why this is so.
But, in the case of a restaurant, excessive, persistent and multi-media advertising really gives me reason to pause and think. Unless a restaurant is new or has something newsworthy to communicate (such as a new chef, menu or location) why do they need to clobber you over the head with repeated advertisements about why they’re so good or #1 by some unquoted or dubious source?
No matter where I am, I’m leery of restaurants that advertise heavily in multiple venues, particularly my personal mother of red flags – billboards on highways leading from the airport into downtown. Afterall, in this case, it’s unlikely that most restaurants would spend money on a roadway sign to remind locals that drive by it every morning how good they are so the would-be diner develops a sudden craving to eat dinner there that night. They wouldn’t need to if they were all that popular with local diners. Instead, they’re likely trying to catch fresh tourist bait for their next clientele meal.
Most restaurants (with the exception of national chains) can’t afford a hefty brand or image budget that requires a constant and persistent stream of advertising in order to create a desired brand image like Nike (for example) can. In my experience, restaurants that relentlessly pummel with advertising are searching for tourists dollars because they don’t have much local business. That can only mean one thing. You do the math.
Generally speaking, while paid advertising has a very real place at appropriate times and through multiple venues, the best advertising in the restaurant business is word-of- mouth. Good restaurants get the repeat business, again and again, whether its from locals or tourists. Bad ones do not.
2) Do Your Homework in Advance and Ask Lots of Questions Upon Arrival
We live in an information-laden society and there are credible sources and some less credible sources. Make it a point to find the former. Read restaurant reviews written by unbiased professionals with bona fide credentials. Question friends with like-minded culinary tastes that have visited the city you are visiting about what restaurants they liked and why – be specific. Buy a travel guide book or find and research one online. Just make sure that its revenue is at least partially subscription and editorial-driven, not exlusively advertising-driven. The latter can potentially invite an ugly little war between church and state that could leave you holding an emotionally and financially expensive bad meal bag.
3. Ask Locals
If you see someone walking a dog and/or a map-free person that seems to know where they’re going, these are potent clues that such folk are probably from around town. Ask them where they like to eat and why. Again, be very specific. Tell them what you’re looking for in food (ethnicity, etc), ambience (romantic, mellow, hip, or whatever), service (impromptu, sleepy, frank, professional, sleek, etc.) and price range (go with specifics like $10-$12 entrees, for example, not just “reasonable” OR “the sky is the limit”) , and ask where you can find it. Listen for sincerity in tone and content to be sure they’re telling you the truth and not just promoting their best bud’s joint.
Pick your your sources carefully. If you typically dress to the nines, have a particular palate and an obsession with all things neat and clean, asking a belly-scratching slob where he likes to eat lunch probably won’t yield productive results. Also, be wary of tourist guides working locales heavily trafficked by tourists. Most have the best intentions in mind, but like people in general, not all do.
3) Follow Your Nose and Your Eyes
Restaurants cooking bad food smells bad. There is one near a sports facility that I visit nearly daily that consistently emits a sickening aroma of stale grease. This is an indication that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, no matter what state you’re in. Same goes for a restaurant that doesn’t smell or look hygenic. If they’re cutting corners and staff on keeping things tidy and clean, then goodness knows what’s happening (or not happening) in the kitchen. If you look into a restaurant and it is full or nearly full (depending on the hour) of happy, smiling people eating food that looks good, that’s a good sign. Never, ever be afraid to walk out of a restaurant that displeases you before you’ve even ordered.
4) Dare to Stray Off the Beaten Path
In many cities, suburbs and areas away from the heart of downtown are home to some of the best dining gems. They’ll almost always be less expensive than downtown eateries and may be equally as good, if not better. Same goes here – ask, ask, ask – following the tips provided above, of course.