Through the simple act of eating a meal on a trip, you’re actually participating in the cultural landscape of a place. Ingredients, flavor combinations, and cooking methods are essential elements: Particular dishes and preparation techniques, like spices, tell us something about who settled there—or who tried and failed—and who lives there now.
Eating on vacation is part of the adventure—at times delicious, exhilarating, and challenging. Sometimes those tactile, sensory memories of eating pad thai noodles from a street cart in Thailand can be as memorable as an eight-course meal in Paris.
In order to have these truly special experiences (rather than the forgettable ones you might have at the corner tourist trap), you may need to make sacrifices and be a little strategic about where and what you eat. Here are our tips for finding that special dining experience on a budget.
Eat at the counter. Note that in cafés, bars, and some restaurants
in certain parts of the world (Paris, for example), it’s less expensive to eat or drink standing at the counter than it is to sit at a table. Some other destinations honor this practice, too.
Get a cheap meal at happy hour. You might be surprised just how much free food is out there. Not only do bars frequently offer great drinks discounts at happy hour, they sometimes set up hors-d’oeuvres buffets, dole out pizza and sandwiches, and pass around big bowls of nuts and snacks.
Don’t pay for an expensive hotel breakfast. Of course, if it’s included, by all means, indulge. However, hotel restaurants can be expensive and mediocre; ask the concierge or staff about the neighborhood’s bagel shops, cafés, and coffee places.
Check out the local supermarket. That’s especially advisable if you’re staying put for a while or have a hotel with kitchenette. You’ll get better prices here than at hotel shops, and you’ll get a good look at cultural habits by seeing what the locals purchase.
Have a picnic. The proliferation of inviting prepared-food shops, fancy delis, boulangeries, and the like mean that you can cobble together a veritable feast without forking over a tip. Find a special sanctuary—a bench overlooking a canal, a low stone wall in a park, a shady and grassy spot under blossoming trees—and bring your Leatherman or other multipurpose slicing-and-bottle-opening tool.
Don’t assume you can use your credit card. Some countries don’t have the phone lines required to run a credit-card processing machine or prefer not to wait for reimbursement from credit-card companies—although invariably some of the top-notch places or hotel restaurants do. If you must use credit, call ahead or have your hotel investigate on your behalf which restaurants take cards.
Plan a whole day around sampling food. Rather than having an entire meal at any one restaurant, move around and snack. The idea isn’t to get uncomfortably full, but to expose yourself to different kinds of restaurants, gourmet shops, markets, and even snack stands. For obvious reasons, you might want to incorporate a bit of walking into this plan. You should also try doing this on a weekday, as restaurants are less crowded and more willing to let you drop in for just an appetizer or dessert.
Ask about special dinner prices. If you can be flexible about when you dine, you can take advantage of early-bird specials or pre- or post-theater special menus. Don’t treat roadside food everywhere with scorn. There are definitely some places you should avoid it entirely and other places where it’s perfectly fine. Just make sure you’ve done some basic research, read your travel guide, and know the difference.