By Kit Kiefer
In a survey we just conducted for our annual State of Travel Insurance report, almost 60 percent of travel agents said that foodie travel is going to be hot in 2017. That’s a lot of love for food-based tourism from a sector of the business that for the most part watches this one from the bench.
Given the ghost-pepper hotness of foodie travel, and the relative lack of involvement from travel agents in this phenomenon, the question lingers on the tongue like capsaicin: What’s a reasonable way of incorporating food into your travels?
If you’re the mobile-savvy digital-elitist traveler that we know you are (you! With the glasses! Put down the Galaxy Note 7, or at the very least grab a marshmallow and some graham crackers), the answer’s pretty simple: take your mobile device, hit your lucky combination of Yelp, TripAdvisor, UrbanSpoon, OpenTable, and maybe Gogobot, and do what everyone else says you should do.
There’s the rub. You’re not really exploring when you do that. You’re following the algorithm. Keep doing that and your food life will start to resemble your music life, which has been whittled down to such a point that your playlist consists of “Hand Clap” and the same three stupid Spotify ads, over and over.
Maybe this is the time for a foodie-travel digital detox. But where do you start with such an undertaking? How do you not consciously go where the digerati go, but find your own special places and blaze your own gastronomic trail? Here are a few suggestions.
- For the most part, eat what you like. Okay, I realize this can send you back down the “Hand Clap” rabbit hole; that’s why “for the most part” is in there. Most people like a whole lot of different stuff, and you can spend most of your travels tracking down and indulging in ultimate and penultimate versions of things you really, really love. There is no shame in hitting the Grilled Cheese Grill in Portland because grilled cheese is one of your favorite foods on earth, and ignoring the bimbibap right next door. As a rule, if you spend two-thirds to three-quarters of your travel time eating things you love and one-third to one-quarter being adventuresome you’re going to feel like you had a great culinary experience.
- Talk to friends. More importantly, eat with friends. Human interaction is the forgotten component of a lot of foodie travel. Eating is a social act; it’s better with friends. Many of the best meals I’ve ever had were directly attributable to friends – either because they recommended a place that was special to them, or, more likely, because they ate with me. If your friends happen to live in the area you’re visiting, fantastic; otherwise, hunt things down together. Even a meal with bad food is made better by the presence of people whose company you truly enjoy.
- Talk to the people who actually make the food. Not the servers – the cooks-slash-chefs. Ask them what’s the best thing they make. If they don’t have a ready answer you may want to look elsewhere. Every cook has at least one dish they’re justifiably proud of. Figure out what that is and order it.
- Follow the lines. This one’s a little trickier, because it might send you to the touristy place instead of the locals’ favorites. In rural America it’s easy: Eat where you see the pickups. In urban America, it’s more complicated: Eat at the place where not everyone in line is taking pictures of the line, the menu, the sign, or their immediate surroundings. And where the sign doesn’t say “Starbucks.”
- If it smells good and looks good, it probably is good. Here’s how to make the most out of that one-third to one-quarter of the time you spend being adventuresome. If you’re eating street food, eat what smells and looks the best, assuming you’re cool with the sanitation. If you’re feeling brave, don’t ask what it is; just eat. Again, it’s not about what tastes good to the masses; it’s about what tastes good to you.
- Don’t get weird if you have a bad meal. It happens to everyone, even in good places, even in the places that are fan favorites. I just came back from a trip to Chicago where I had the most disappointing poutine ever at a TripAdvisor fave that shall remain nameless. Do I wish the poutine would have been better? Sure. But I’ve eaten around enough to know that not every meal is going to be the best meal ever. And the beer tasted good and the company was unsurpassed, so it wasn’t a total loss.
- Sometimes your best takeaway isn’t what’s in your doggie bag. In the end, foodie travel is about the total experience — the ambiance, the company, the adventures, and the misadventures. So put the phone away and experience it. Just don’t forget the travel insurance.