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Dining like / with 'the locals'?

The recent threads on 'local experience' while traveling have me wanting to hear from you folks about whether you feel similarly about travelers who say they want to dine like the locals do or eat with the locals.

I live someplace with great cuisine from all corners of the globe, so when I'm on travel, I want to sample the best food that typifies the local culture, which many times is not the best meal to be had -- I don't want to go to the best French bistro in Denver when I can get great bistro food in my own neighborhood and in France, what I want in Denver is Denver food.

Cosmopolitan cities complicate this -- are the best restaurants in London and Berlin serving 'local' cuisine? Maybe not. Locals don't want expensive fish'n'chips or schnitzel, they want something creative, maybe exotic -- like when I see Napa wines on menus all over the world (if I make the mistake of going into a major chain hotel dining room). 'California' has a pacific breeze to its name, and appeals to diners in gray locales all over the world. So, if a Berliner is looking for an enjoyable meal and heads for a spot with a pacific-themed menu (whichever of the many coasts of the Pacific), more power to them, but if I'm in Berlin looking for dinner, I want Berliner cuisine. Probably.

OTOH, there is romanticizing going on between everywhere and everywhere else -- Californians say they miss good ol' diner grub like their parents had before they moved out here, but then I hear my parents talking about dishes like liver and onions or baked scrod and I realize that we in the enlightened West don't really want to look too closely at what the less evolved peoples of Old America are eating. (I'm using that in the same way that Don Rumsfeld used 'old Europe' as a derogatory dig). /s

Posted by
688 posts

Thanks for teeing up a provocative topic. When I travel, I want to experience the food that defines the culture of the place that I am visiting. That includes the food of the region as well as the influences in that region. So in London, it is finding great Indian as well as traditional British food.

If a town is undergoing a food Renaissance like London, then I will search out what is new and innovative on the food scene to try. I live in California, near Napa and Sonoma, so I deliberately focus on the wines of the region I visit, following the adage what grows with it, goes with it.

Posted by
2889 posts

Interesting topic. When I travel, I want the best food available in the location in my budget and I do not really care if it is the local cuisine. That is especially true in places like Hong Kong and Tokyo where I have found some fantastic French meals. I also do not really care if the place is filled with locals as long as the food is good. For example, in Paris, there is a place called L'Avant Comptoir that serves small plates. I think their food and wines are generally terrific but I hear loads on English when I am there and that does not ruin the experience for me. In fact, I sort of dislike places where there is no variety among the restaurants because all of them are serving local cuisine.

Posted by
2526 posts

This post sparked my memory of ordering cheese fondue in a Swiss restaurant. The server was dismissive both verbally and with an eye-roll. Nevertheless, it was delicious.

Posted by
293 posts

@ Bruce- that's funny. I have also had a "similar Swiss experience" but the German girlfriend who was with me wouldn't stand for it, and out we went.

In German-speaking areas, you could look for this sign or this wording online: "Gut burgerliche Kuche" with Umlauts over the "u's" which means "good old-fashioned German style food."

Anyone remember when you could get a half-chicken, roasted, with pommes, a lemon slice, and a cute small wrapped wet-wipe settled on top? And those yummy German portioned salads: grated carrot, crated celery-root sitting on a leaf of butter lettuce? Aaah the good old days. Can't find that meal anymore, except possibly at Wiener Wald.

Posted by
742 posts

The recent threads on 'local experience' while traveling have me wanting to hear from you folks about whether you feel similarly about travelers who say they want to dine like the locals do or eat with the locals.

Since you want to stir up the pot with this post, let me add this -- unless you speak the local language you don't get the full experience in many countries. Say you are in Paris; sure, the waiter speaks English. But you want local. Go to a small town, on the coast let's say. Your waiter will likely not speak English. Part of the experience, I've been told, is discussing at length the dinner you are ordering: the provenance of the food, what is seasonal and/or new, the preparation, what to pair with what, suggestions on the wine to accompany each course. Without this banter are you getting the 'local experience'?

Posted by
347 posts

The best local meal and experience I’ve ever had was in Santa Rosa de Copan in Honduras. Our driver asked my friend and I if we liked pork. Our answer was yes. He said he will take us to the best place for pork in all of Honduras but we have to bring our own tortillas. We were puzzled as to why. He took us to Olympia’s place, a woman who roasted whole pigs in her back yard. Her pork was sent all over the country because it was so good. We found the house and there was quite a line for people to get pork to take home. Olympia invited us to sit in her yard to eat and our driver went out to get the fresh tortillas from someone selling them on the street. We indicated we wanted three servings. A woman took a cleaver to whack off pieces from a whole roasted pig. She added a delectable sauce to the meat. It was incredibly delicious. The freshly made, warm tortillas added to the dish. I asked how many gringos have eaten here. Olympia said two, my friend and me. It’s a moment I will always treasure.

Posted by
12875 posts

If you want to dine with the locals, you pick a small restaurant where you are the only foreigner in the entire place, you hear nothing but the local language, and don't rely on their giving you an English menu unless the menu already has English along with the local language.

Of course, there are places in Berlin serving Berlin or German cuisine. The Weinkarte will list German wines along with the French. It all depends on how far you want to go. As pointed out above, sometimes the restaurant will have the words, "gute, bürgerliche Küche" or Alt-Berlin. That gets my attention to want to check the menu out if any of it is written on a chalk board.

@ Shelley..ganz genau. I remember that sort of dish in the 1970s and '80s...ordering "ein halbes Hähnchen."

Posted by
1256 posts

Liver and onion is delicious. You should add bacon for the proper version. Use the onion to make onion gravy, using beef stock. Serve with mashed potatoes and green beans.

And it's been a long time since Californian wines were considered exotic here, probably not this century. There have been plenty of "new" wine regions appear on menus since the days when wine from California was a "new thing" in Europe, including from other parts of the US. These days you can even find a dry white from Tasmania or a sparkling wine from Dorset.

Posted by
4654 posts

If you want to dine with the locals, you pick a small restaurant where you are the only foreigner in the entire place, you hear nothing but the local language,

How do you establish whether you're the only foreigner or not and how do you know that the people all speaking the language of the country you're in are local or could they be tourists from elsewhere around the country?

Posted by
1656 posts

Over the years I have shifted my focus to high quality, good food rather than trying to fit in to the local scene, especially if there is a language barrier beyond my capabilities. If there is a particular local specialty I'll make an effort to try it (e.g., currywurst in Berlin or guinea pig in Peru). I also find that everything tastes better on vacation...you can't beat eating a take away crepe on the banks of the Seine or munching a cinghiale sandwich looking over San Gimignano.

Posted by
1663 posts

For me it’s not with the locals to start with but more being amidst and so can look back having many memorable experiences “with” the locals. For eating I ask my host the places he or she can recommend.

Posted by
5247 posts

I'm not what you'd call a foodie, I know what I like and don't like at home, but elsewhere I try local specialities, like haggis (OK) and escargot (great). I've been told to have a tripe sandwich in Florence next week and I'm trying to get my head around that. In Paris I learned what "rognon" means when I ordered some by mistake. I tend to stay away from hamburgers and such, partly because I can get them so easily at home and partly because they're not always done so well overseas.

"Eating with the locals" is fine if you can communicate with the waiter and understand the menu at least on a basic level. But truly "eating with the locals" would mean going into their homes. Kind of like "living like a local" means commuting to a job every day, not something we want to do on vacation. I'm not so focused on meals that I'm necessarily willing to look very hard for a "local" place. But I remember one dinner in China where the five of us were the only non-Chinese in a hot-pot place and we provided great entertainment to the other customers trying to get the noodles to our plates and then our mouths. The owner's pre-teen son had to come out from the kitchen to explain in English how to eat hot pot.

The world has shrunk to the point where we can get good food from many cultures at home, at least in metropolitan areas. That makes us more willing to experiment abroad and discover what we eat in Mexico, Italy, or China differs from what we may expect based on our hometown "Mexican, Italian, or Chinese" restaurants.

Posted by
12875 posts

You might very well see in a traditional German restaurant in Berlin a liver dish with the words "Berliner Art"

Posted by
1884 posts

Quick reactions to the comments so far:
• I do make a point of discussing the menu with the restaurant staff, even or especially when my language skills are poor, because that improves both the meal and my savoir faire -- I was taking my own sweet time to order at a place in Nimes and the maitre d' came by and joshed with me, "I know the problem: you like everything!" "Exactly," I said. This led to a long discussion, including the farm where they sourced their foie gras (in Catalunya) and it gave me an edge for the rest of the year: whenever I ordered foie gras in other restaurants going forward, I asked what farm they sourced it from!
In both Italy and France, if I can't summon the right words, I can fall back on Spanish before I fall back on English, and this often gets a positive response.

• We owe the SUV drivers and air-condition blasters a thank-you for causing the climate change that allows us to enjoy Dorset wines and the other rising peculiar delicacies -- I myself am looking forward to Canadian citrus :-)

• Food is one of my go-to topics in making smalltalk with strangers because I don't feel right about asking after people's families or origins (Do you have kids? Where are you from originally?) right off the bat. What are the typical dishes of this city, and what are your favorites? is an easy pitch down the middle that can lead to (maybe) more interesting discussions -- like is Valencia really part of Catalunya or not?

• The eat-what's-local and pair things together naturally rule-of-thumb is another great way to learn, including the exceptions, like baccalao being sourced from far away, or the Argentine passion for Italian-ish dishes.

Posted by
1105 posts

The recent threads on 'local experience' while traveling have me wanting to hear from you folks about whether you feel similarly about travelers who say they want to dine like the locals do or eat with the locals.

I read your post a few times and really wasn't sure what the question was you were asking except this first line.

When you say "dine like the locals do" I'm not sure what that really means. I live around locals in the US. Some of us like local diners or single proprietor-owned restaurants, some of us like chain restaurants, some enjoy 5 star dining, some of us never eat out, etc.etc. I guarantee however you dine in Europe, there are locals who dine LIKE you do and are dining WITH you.

I guess from my perspective I care more about the specific local food dish I want to experience rather than who I am dining with in the restaurant. If the consensus of reviews for that local dish is best at a small local restaurant, that's fine by me. If the consensus is that a restaurant of an international hotel chain serves the best, that's fine also.

The first thing I do when planning for restaurants on an European trip is to simply Google, "Local foods of......(whatever locale I plan to be in). I read about what they are and determine my interest. For example, I wouldn't try tripe anywhere in the world because I have no desire to eat it regardless of how well it is cooked. Just my preference. Tripe lovers needn't respond! Lol.

I then start searching Yelp, Lonely Planet, etc. on which restaurant has the best of that dish in the area I am staying or within a certain radius. More than once I have taken a short train ride to a nearby town just for dinner.

This "local experience myth" has somehow taken a life of its own. PLEASE, for you first time travelers, don't get hung up on "the local experience" to the point you feel you didn't have a great experience traveling abroad because you didn't "live or eat like a local".

Posted by
1884 posts

Threadwear, see the first two comments in the thread.

Regarding second-guessing one's travel choices or causing unneeded anxiety, certainly your observation is correct -- don't sweat it, first-time visitors! but even so, people shouldn't be fingerpointed in any other direction either -- if someone wants to look for typical cuisine, let them do so by their chosen means -- your use of google and yelp would not be at the top of my list b/c I prefer an informed opinion by someone or some source that I hold in high esteem rather than the crowdsourced and sponsor-nudged results of those outlets.

I was talking with a Parisian visitor to Nice one afternoon: he comes to Nice a couple of times a year for a long weekend, and says that many northerners are looking not just for a warmer-weather getaway but also a way to have an Italian dining experience (as they understand it) without actually going the extra kilometer (or 20) into Italy. Nice fits that bill. Are the northerners [within France] 'locals' ? Is eating with them what I'm after? Does it matter? The menu choices in the Riviera are going to be a bit different from those in Paris, etc.

Again: I went a little off-piste in Juan les Pins by getting a late snack at a creperie that had an Atlantic vibe, and shared a table with a guy from Bordeaux who was nursing his resentment of being stuck in the south for summer resort employment -- gave me another perspective on how ~locals~ think of the resort towns... Yet again : in the Gard another Parisian looked askance at the duck dish I was enjoying and insisted that in the civilized north they only ate beef 'blue' , never fowl -- duck should be well-cooked. Didn't stop me from enjoying it -- maybe it made it even better.

Posted by
12875 posts

Re: rognon...in Germany that's Kalbsnieren. I've had it both in Germany and in France. As late as the 1990s there was a German restaurant in SF that offered that dish.

Posted by
2316 posts

Fred--are you thinking of the fabulous and sadly departed Beethoven in North Beach? That was my family's favorite upscale German restaurant and I recall they closed around 1994 or so. Then there's Schroeder's where I learned to love sauerbraten as a little kid in the late 60s.

Posted by
12875 posts

@ Christa...very true about Beethoven's at the corner of Union and Powell, yes, totally "sadly departed"

No, I was not referring Beethoven's. That dish was not served there, if my memory is correct. Where "Kalbsnieren" was on the menu was at "Speckmann's" out in Noe Valley on Church Street.

Posted by
1884 posts

Have any of you Bay Area peeps been to the Lithuanian place in Alameda, or the new-ish German spots around Jack London Square? I went to some Oktoberfest dinners in Rockridge but nothing very spectacular..l

Posted by
3303 posts

In another thread, somebody wrote what I thought was an astute reaction to those writing about wanting to eat like the locals when traveling. She said that most locals work long hours and enjoy their dinners at home; she of course is one of them. So unless you're invited to someone's home, it will be difficult to eat like the locals.

Posted by
6617 posts

continental makes a good point. Turn the situation around and a foreign visitor to the US who wants to "eat like a local" would be going to the McDonalds drive thru for breakfast, Subway for lunch, and ordering pizza delivery for dinner. Maybe its really "eat like a local who is on holiday." Or, you really mean the above-average local.

Posted by
3105 posts

We too live(d) in a town full of tourists and hundreds of restaurants. When we shared information with our international exchangers we’d always tell them about some of the hottest restaurants in town but we always included a description of our local, down the hill, go to restaurant, the Mesa Cafe, if they wanted to try some unpretentious but consistently satisfying food. We ate there once or twice a month over 34 years and always saw a lot of our neighbors.

When we ate with friends in Paris she took us to her version of the Mesa Cafe at the Bassin de la Villette. We seek out other “Mesa Cafes” when we travel.

Posted by
1884 posts

Very well put, Mona.

In that vein, it's nice when an AirBnB (or similar) host leaves the current issue of TimeOut (or similar) for the guest to use, but it's even nicer when they tell you which of the nearby eating spots they favor themselves and why.
Once I was zooming out in the morning and said to the host, "The bakery to get a baguette is to the right, true?" and he quietly, almost slyly, said to go to the bakery to the left, and it proved to be very good advice.

Re: stan and continental's comments, I get the point: don't over-romanticize the local experience.
But I must point out that I've always been an American, and am typical in the sense that I hover around or below the median household income for the counties I reside in, and I have never, not once, had breakfast from a McDonalds drive-thru, and can count the lunches I've had at Subway with fingers and toes left over, and pizza delivery people don't know my door from Adam's.

Posted by
12875 posts

@ Nick...You can be sure to get calf liver in Berlin. It is listed as "Kalbsleber Berliner Art. " Close to Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of the city's very oldest restaurants, if not the oldest, (can't recall the name) where that dish is served.

Also in Berlin-Köpenick at the "Restauration Zur Gardestube" located on the side street across from the Rathaus, ca a 40 min walk from S-Bahn station "Köpenick." There is only one restaurant across the street anyway. I've been there a couple of times, only Germans go there from what I saw at dinner and lunch, copious portions, a nice and relaxing place, very old school with its turn of the century decor.