When you're new in town it's an exciting opportunity to discover interesting places to eat, those places that will define your trip, give you a local food experience and remain a delicious memory. That said, it can also be an experience fraught with disappointment if you pick a bad'un.
With that in mind, Fine Dining Lovers has a number of tips for how to judge a restaurant worth stepping over the threshold, where you are likely to be rewarded with an unforgettable dinner, for all the right reasons.
1. Early bird gets the booking
Head out early in the morning – we love nothing more than peeking through the kitchen door of restaurants in the morning to see which ones are buzzing with life and to steal a sniff of wonderful stock simmering away. The places that are alive and kicking early, the ones prepping stock, baking bread and chopping veg are the restaurants you want to book for lunch or dinner. Those that wake an hour before service and scramble to clean, prep and cook before the first guests arrive are usually to be avoided.
Conversely, if you walk past at night after service, have the tables been cleaned down, floors mopped and the place generally left ship-shape and ready for opening the next morning?
2. First impressions count
Does the place have an identity – does the restaurant know what it is – and from its name and branding to the decor, is the message cohesive? Remember, simplicity is usually best.
Is the exterior of the place clean and inviting – are plants tended, windows and awnings clean and are any outdoor seating areas tended and in good condition? If the outside of a restaurant has been overlooked it should set alarm bells off about what’s on the inside.
If there are Michelin or restaurant guide stickers on the door – are they recent, or is the restaurant resting on its laurels from the good old days and awards from a decade ago?
3. Keep it clean
Basic hygiene obviously applies. Are tables clean and glasses sparkling? Are the bathrooms well kept and won't leave you running for the door? Likewise, the use of strong air fresheners or aggressive cleaning products that hang in the atmosphere is a real turn-off, especially in a fish restaurant.
Kayleigh Harrington via Unsplash
4. The first rule
The first thing that hits the table usually dictates the rest of the meal. The first edible bite at the table sets the scene, if it's a stale or soggy piece of bread or some dirt cheap breadsticks, there's a good chance the rest of the meal will follow the trend. If it's a bread basket full of freshly baked delights, you're almost guaranteed a good meal. There are exceptions to this rule but it's one that definitely helps when trying to peer through a restaurant window and to assess.
5. Eat with your eyes
You would be silly to avoid using technology when searching for a restaurant in a new city. Google Maps is a great resource and our very own City Tasting Tours are also invaluable when trying to find suggestions in a new place.
Search 'restaurants near me' and filter for best rated, but don't just take the rating as true – many places game the review system with fake reviews. Look out for those places with a good number of reviews and a high average rating. From here the trick is to click on each one and look at the dishes on offer – how are they presented, how are they described on the menu, do they use parsley garnish like it's 1980 or are the plates modern and fresh? They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover but they also say we eat with our eyes and it's definitely true: this is one of the best ways to get an idea of a new city when travelling – combine this method with the early bird step above and you'll quickly find the best places in town.
Tap into social media – Instagram and TikTok are great resources for current pics and feedback from recent visitors.
You can even start before you visit a city. Start following local chefs on their social media to see what and where they're eating in town and which restaurants and chefs they're following.
K8 via Unsplash
6. Menu size
The length of a menu is another dead giveaway for a restaurant: those that have 19 pages and 15 varieties for every continent in the world should always be avoided – no kitchen can churn out so many different dishes without industrial-style production and many microwaves. Look for a well-thought-out, well-written and, the best, changing menu: if a restaurant's website or social page shows they change their menu often then this is usually a good sign. Seasonal ingredients on the menu are another thing to look for.
The menu should be displayed outside the restaurant’s entrance – setting the scene for what awaits you. Ideally, it should be clear and not overly wordy, ambitious or pompous, with reference to locally sourced ingredients. More adventurous ingredients can suggest a chef with more technique.
Dishes Edward Howell via Unsplash
7. Trusted guides
Guides will do some of the leg work for you. The Michelin Guide, Le Fooding in France, and Gambero Rosso, Slow Food Guida l'Osteria d'Italia and l'Espresso guide in Italy are all trusted sources.
8. The drive-by
Take a subtle walk past once, or twice! Try checking out the dishes and the level of professionalism in the place. The staff can make or break a restaurant experience, so get a feel for whether there seems to be an energy and synergy among the staff.
You'll also be able to gauge the vibe of the place: is it stiff and formal or relaxed bistro-style? Fit the style with your mood to have a chance of meeting your expectations.
9. Crowd control
Does it get busy and does it get busy with locals at the right times of the day? If you can't get a booking on a Tuesday night then this is the place you want to snag on your visit. Ask the locals also, rather than trying to asses how local a crowd is, ask your taxi driver, hotel owner, receptionist and the friendly person you met on the plane.
You've probably already had a bad restaurant experience! Here are some red flags to look out for shared by professional chefs.
This article was updated on 22/03/2023.