Don’t Fear the Hotel Meal: Go Elsewhere

You’ve done it before, the dreaded wander from a hotel room into whatever Chile’s McFactory lurks around the corner. It’s the curse of travelers everywhere, the proximity of chain eateries near hotels combined with the fear that the evil you don’t know could be worse than the evil you do. The fact is you can ward off all the evils at once with a little bit of preparation before a trip.

You’d always want to know what the tourist attractions are and which hotel to stay in when you go to a new place, so why would you neglect where you are going to eat? An hour of preparation or less in front of the computer can produce something like this. This spreadsheet of eateries is from a recent trip to Las Vegas. As you can see, I’ve got some recommended restaurants, what they serve, why we want to go there and then a place for the other travelers to comment–I’ve left those in there, along with all typos for entertainment value. I ended up changing my Dad’s mind about forever dreading having to come to Vegas because he knows he has an incredible Thai restaurant to go to each time. Seriously, Lotus of Siam is a restaurant worth waiting for, but there was no way to find it without specific instructions of how to tear yourself away from neon-lit Denny’s and the such. Even harder to distinguish was the neon-lit Peppermill, but this was another one worth it. Chintzy Vegas is the decor, but the food is classic diner done right. Using this method, we made it through 4 days in Vegas, each meal better than the last. It is an easy way to make sure you’re never caught in the “it’s too far” “I want a different kind of food” melee and then you end up at some god awful place because it is close and shuts everyone up. I know what you are thinking though, where do you find this all out?

The same place you find out about restaurants in your own city, other than hearing from friends: Food writers and food bloggers. You can check local newspapers–especially Alt-weeklies tend to be a good place to check. Jonathan Gold in LA and Jonathan Kauffman here in Seattle are two of my favorite food writers and write for the LA and Seattle Weeklies. Each paper’s website has a database that you can search and see the articles they have written about local dives, haunts and meccas of local cuisine, whichever you desire. You can also check online forums like Chowhound or eGullet both of which have a ready and willing army of people ready to answer questions like “I need to find a $5 meal served with white table cloths within 12 walking minutes of the Midtown Hilton” or whatever. Urbanspoon is a great resource because it lists restaurants by cost, neighborhood and type as well as linking to a variety of local paper reviews. The most valuable resource (which Urbanspoon, in some cities, will also direct you to) is local bloggers. These are people who eat out often and are thinking about what they eat while also letting you get a handle on their tastes by seeing their many posts. For example, when considering my trip to Asia, I discovered Sticky Rice. From this blog I got to enjoy stories, get excited about the things I was going to see and to understand what my food was. Reading one article about a specific Pho stand helps you to not just figure out what you’ll need to do at that specific stand, but what to look for in searching out any of the many. The local blogger research strategy allows you to delve into a few great suggestions from someone who eats in the city all the time.

I promise that with one hour of your time before you go on a trip, making a little spreadsheet or even just jotting down places near where you think you might be, you’ll not only enjoy your trip much more, you’ll have some very happy travel partners!