I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the church I visited during my trip to Kiev in 2013. I know it was pretty big and there was stained glass all over the place. I assume some interesting things happened there – churchy things and whatnot.
What I do remember is every single detail of the bizarre Brazilian steakhouse to which my hosts proudly whisked me at the conclusion of my conference. I’ve never been to Brazil, but I’ve cringed my way through enough Anthony Bourdain diatribes to know that this place would be about as welcome in Brazil as Ryan Lochte. None of that matters, though, because the meat and wine were both bottomless to the point that I couldn’t wait to get back to my tiny Ukrainian hotel room to go bottomless as well.
I will always delight in the memories from the following night when I tried my hand at solo eating in a business district restaurant where I was told I could find English speakers to help me through (nope). I ended up receiving some sort of Ukrainian pizza when I thought I was ordering a salad. My attempt at ordering a drink led to an elegantly poured Guinness with a pink bendy straw in it. This will go down in history as my second favorite Guinness of all time, coming in just behind the one at the top of the Guinness factory in Dublin. It tasted terrible, but it was the most adorable thing I’ve ever done.
Everyone has their thing when they travel. Some need to hit the museums. Others want to walk the streets and take in the sites. I need to eat everything I possibly can. Food is the only thing I can think of that simultaneously binds us all together and makes every single place a unique and beautiful unicorn. I can learn everything I want to about a place by passionately pursuing the local nourishment. Museums, history, and architecture are important too, but none of those come bacon-wrapped. So if you’re like me and would prefer to taste what a place has to offer more than seeing it, here are my tips for maximizing your snacks:
Pick the neighborhood first, restaurant second
For me, the best restaurants are reflections of the communities in which they exist. They cater to the people who know what’s up rather than just to those who say words like “flavor profile” and “hints of cardamom.” If you are really enjoying the neighborhood, you are more likely to enjoy the restaurant experience. You’ll like the people you’re around and you’ll find more things to do before and after.
Get ready to digest weird
Listen, things are going to get weird in the bathroom for a little bit. Say that to yourself a few times every hour. Vibrate with that reality. Done? Now don’t let it dissuade you from eating something crazy. A few years down the road, you will remember the fried guinea pig you ate first and what happened in the bathroom on the flight home second.
Steer into your awkwardness
In all likelihood, you have found yourself in a restaurant where you don’t come close to speaking the language. When this happens, it is critical that you immediately come to terms with the fact that none of your interactions with the restaurant staff are going to be cute. I’ve been single for five years now, so I’m pretty used to asking for a table for one, but it’s much more ouchy when I try to do it in Turkish. But please don’t let this stop you from eating at the place of your dreams. It will always be tempting to go to the places that cater to tourists because sometimes you don’t want to have flashbacks to the time you tried to ask the popular kid to the junior high dance before you sit down for a hearty meal on vacation. But instead, delight in the awkward interactions. When you enter a restaurant, everyone is already on the same page. See food. Eat food. This will happen regardless of communication issues. At the very least, you’ll have a great story to distract your in-laws next Thanksgiving when they try to bring up politics.
DIETS SHALL NOT PASS
New year, new you…or whatever. I’ve recently decided that I have a vested interest in living past the age of 40, so I’m starting to take things like vegetables a little more seriously. But there is no place for this while you’re traveling. Leave the diet at home, and leave anyone who refuses to do so at home too. This might sound harsh, but if you are traveling with someone who needs to spend hours researching places to eat that cater to their current fad diet, you won’t get the food you want and they’ll feel bad for making you sacrifice. If you can’t shake them (because you’re married to them or something), open and honest communication about your food priorities can help. If food is as important to you as it is to me, be prepared to eat separately once in a while. You don’t actually need to hang out with your betrothed 24/7 despite what TV tells you. Did I mention I’ve been single for the last 5 years?
Long conversations with restaurant staff are probably more common in the United States than anywhere else, so this might feel uncomfortable in some localities. But if you have questions, ask them! I tend to aggressively flirt with servers because I’m a guy on a budget, and I can’t afford every dessert that I want.The questions that I ask while shamelessly trying to access free flourless chocolate cake often lead me to not only identifying the most traditional and delicious items on the menu, but I also get great tips about other things to do and eat nearby.
Happy nom noms travelers!
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