Choosing Restaurants in Unfamiliar Places

How do you pick a restaurant when you're in an unfamiliar city (or in the case of a mammoth city like LA, an unfamiliar part of town)?

First of all, ignore the guidebooks. Why? Pick up any guidebook with a Los Angeles section and look at its restaurant suggestions. If a place with food as bad as Toi's is considered one of LA's most exciting dining scenes, then the suggestions are very misguided.

Even a Zagat guide is not that useful--there are so many gems that it misses completely, while listing places like the Cheesecake Factory that are already familiar to most people. Take Sawtelle, for example: the only places mentioned in Zagat are Asahi and Orris. While those are two of my favorite restaurants on the strip, they are by no means the only ones worth mentioning.

When I'm somewhere new, I like to walk into several restaurants, read the menu, and hang around long enough to get a feel for the vibe. Usually, your instincts will give you an answer pretty quickly, without you even having to make a conscious decision. But if you want a little more guidance, here are a few things to pay attention to:

-How does the host or hostess treat you when you ask for a menu to look over? If they're too busy or too stuck up to so much as offer a smile, you're probably not in for a good experience.

-How crowded is it? An empty restaurant is never a good sign. If you're eating at an off-peak time like 3pm, keep in mind that it can be harder to use this criterion.

-Are a large number of the restaurant's patrons of the same ethnicity as the food being served? If so, that's usually a good indication of the food's authenticity. Food doesn't have to be authentic to be good, but when you have no other information to go on, it doesn't hurt to place a lot of weight on this characteristic.

If you follow these simple guidelines, it's hard to go wrong.

Do you have any tips for finding good restaurants in unfamiliar places? Leave a comment!


Anonymous said...

Oops! I just checked the Sawtelle Boulevard listings in the Zagat Survey. Although I think that they overlooked some, such as Mizu 212 (It's good, unique and it's been there a long time), Sushi Tenn (the top Citysearch pick) and Ketchey's (cheap, a long line and specacular Chinese chicken salad) others are listed. They are Chabuya (online), Hide Sushi, Sawtelle Kitchen and 2117. Blue Marlin and Phoreign (aka Hanoi Cafe) were delisted in the 2006 guild. I think they should have every restaurant.

Anonymous said...

I printed out your insightfull Guidelines for Choosing in Unfamiliar Places and plan to take it with me when I travel. I usually just check how clean the restroom is. Now I have more things to look for.