Eating can be a big part of travel, and here’s how we’ve learned to do it better. Bon appétit!
I first came across “Our Highly Subjective But Very Smart Guide to Traveling,” a memorable feature in Bon Appétit, shortly after it published. As highly subjective as its tips may be (and how much of a listicle it is!), I’ve continued to think about how simple the main points are and yet how they can make life easier (and more fun!) while traveling. As we’re now packing for another few months away from home, I’ve added commentary to Bon Appétit’s headlines and written a few of my own.
Tips from Bon Appétit, with commentary from yours truly
1. Don’t leave the fridge totally bare before you take off
A little planning in advance can make returning home all the more welcoming. Be sure to have a favorite comfort meal ready, or almost ready, in your fridge or freezer. No need to call in (or app up) for takeout or regret grabbing a slice from Sbarro at the airport terminal. Bon Appétit’s top tip notes having the ingredients for cacio e pepe. Well, I’ve previously shared my love for spaghetti aglio e olio, and having the ingredients already on hand when we get home from a trip is self care at its finest.
(Of course, if you’re gone for a while, you’ll likely want to leave your fridge entirely empty and unplug the power to save on electricity costs; in that case, be sure to do so at least 24 hours before you leave to allow both the fridge and freezer to thaw, then wipe them down and prop the doors open to ensure you don’t return to any funky molds growing in there! In that case, we’ll amend Bon Appétit’s advice slightly to say: don’t leave your cabinets totally bare before you go!)
2. Rethink your souvenirs
We’re big fans of spicy foods in this household. (Well, not Eliza just yet, though she has been known to ask for jalapeños, cry while eating them, and then promptly ask for them again, so perhaps she’ll be a future fan of some hot hot heat.) Rather than coming home with overpriced knickknacks tailored for tourists, we find it’s far more memorable to pick up a local hot sauce as a souvenir for ourselves (and sometimes friends and family too, if they’re lucky enough).
3. Make yourself a regular
Plenty of travelers opt to make themselves a regular at the hotel bar, and may they enjoy their drinks. But we tend to gravitate toward cafes with nice seating areas. The point here is: if you find a place you love on your travels, don’t be ashamed about going back and even spending time talking with the staff or other patrons.
The bonus with this strategy is that you can sample multiple menu items without feeling a need to overindulge. And you can give up obsessively checking other spots with good reviews on Foursquare, Yelp, or Google Maps. (A note from Sean: To that point, who really cares if the reviews are good, so long as you like the place?)
4. Build your trip around [croissants]
Fill in the brackets above with whatever it is you love, and tailor any trip to accommodate. It may be cliché — and absolutely delicious — to savor croissants while in Paris, but have you ever mapped out a croissant crawl through Lower Manhattan?
Whether you’re going with the obvious, or looking for harder-to-find gems, this approach can make your itinerary even more creative, and you might just find a new depth wherever you are. (Plus, you’ll always have a good answer to the question: why are you here? Oh, just my croissant tour, Monsieur.) In this vein: we’re hoping to do a Scotch tour of Scotland in a few years for Sean’s next milestone birthday. Personally, I’d like to plan a far more child-friendly bubble tea trip to Taipei one day.
5. Hit up the grocery store
Even if your whole purpose for taking a vacation was to allow yourself to not need to set aside time to run out to your local grocery store, traveling can have a knack for making the most ordinary, even mundane, errands crackle with a sense of exploration and purpose.
I can’t say I see as much joy as Sean does in assessing the relative product placement for local brands vis-à-vis multinationals around the world, but, truly, I’ve found visiting a grocery store while traveling to be a great way of ensuring I eat and drink what I probably wouldn’t, if I were to stick only with restaurants.
Plus, picking up treats at a grocery store to bring home to family, friends, or colleagues certainly costs less and beats bringing back fridge magnets (or overpriced candy) chosen at the last-minute when you’re waiting at the airport.
6. Be a teetotaler (just for a little while)
If you don’t drink alcohol, then you already know some of the benefits of this tip: The faster you acclimate to your new environment and time zone, the better you’ll feel. If you do drink, give yourself a reasonable buffer (whether that’s a day or a few) to get out and explore your surroundings, ground yourself, and be purposeful with your time, to ensure your imbibing doesn’t take away from everything else you’d like to do!
And if going for out for drinks feels like a critical part of your travels, well, you won’t miss out on much if you take a break before, during, or at the end of your trip. Personally, I also like to steer clear of fizzy drinks (Sean says soda, I used to say pop) and too much junk food or sugar while in transit to cut down on bloat and lethargy. That said, sometimes those things taste so good when your flight is delayed, your phone battery died, and Sour Patch Kids feel like your only friends.
Tips and commentary from yours truly, (Cathlin) Bond & (Sean) Thomas
7. It’s okay (actually, it’s great) to order something you know you’ll like
Tell me, have you ever gone to a restaurant somewhere special, read the menu, and, knowing exactly what you wanted, proceeded to choose to order something else that seemed less common?
Maybe it’s only us, but daily specials sometimes seem excessively tantalizing. It can be tempting to think you should only order new or unique foods while traveling, but rest assured, it’s entirely okay to eat what you know you’ll like. If you do order an old standby, consider balancing it by adding on something you haven’t had before, like an appetizer or accompanying drink. For example, we tried cold — and refreshingly delicious — pine needle tea while in Seoul. This tactic works etspecially well if you’re in a group, since you might luck out and still get to sample or share with others, but being alone with a big appetite works too. Unless you’re crunched for time, you’ll have plenty of meals to try new dishes, so don’t feel like every one has to be novel.
8. Read up on the culinary history of where you’re going and plan accordingly
French fries in Belgium. Chocolate soufflé in France. Noodles in Beijing. (Yes, Italy owes China a big thank you). Though it’s fun to try a range of cuisines and influences when you travel, don’t miss out on the basics that the place you’re visiting has long perfected. And if you’re struggling to figure out what that might be, Wikipedia’s “List of food origins” page is a fine starting point.
But also don’t get too fixated on what’s considered a main dish of any particular place. Often, there can be overlapping and overlooked culinary histories with just as much richness. Reflecting on our past few months in Providence, Rhode Island, for instance, I’ve been reminded of the refreshing taste of Del’s (frozen) Lemonade and introduced to the mighty snack that is the pizza strip, available at most bakeries. But it has also been amazing to see and learn firsthand about the Portuguese, Azorean, and Cape Verdean influence as well as the Vietnamese imprint in nearby Cranston.
9. Eat at food halls
Yes, food halls can conjure different meanings. If you’re in or from Boston, you might be thinking about the longstanding Faneuil Hall or the recent addition of Boston Public Market or the five new additions soon on their way. In New York these days, well, let’s just say food courts are no longer reserved for suburban shopping malls.
But when I’m thinking of food halls, I’m also considering the hawker stands of Singapore, Market Hall in Wrocław where Sean went back for seconds of pierogi, Food Alley and similar food courts in Auckland, and the seemingly endless rows of food vendors and choices at Gwangjang Market in Seoul.
One upside to these kinds of establishments, be they traditional or modern, is that you can try several things from several vendors while still sitting in the same place. It’s also an ideal choice for indecisive groups. Yes, please, I would like that raw coconut to go with my laksa and Singaporean carrot cake and a vegetable fry.
10. Looks can be deceiving
We would be far from the first to suggest that some of the tastiest meals you’ll find might be all too easily bypassed, if you’re not already looking for them. Sean remembers a cousin of his introducing him to the curries of Shalimar in San Francisco more than a decade ago with a hint not to read much into its sparse — ahem, functional — interior. Similarly, every time Sean is back in the Bay Area and drives far enough down the 101, he makes a point to eat at Tres Potrillos, a taqueria he loves that seems hardly noticeable in a strip mall beside a Valero gas station.
When we lived in New York City, the great Punjabi Deli was only a couple of minutes of a walk from our apartment. While it looked like little more than a small, longtime, and downstairs deli (even more difficult to see during years of street construction outside), it is absolutely perfect on the inside (and that’s what counts). An array of curries with naan and/or rice come at jaw-droppingly reasonable prices with an immensely welcoming spirit toward seemingly anybody who steps inside.
But if we were merely visiting the area (and hadn’t lived there), I’m not so sure I would have stopped in unless it first came as highly recommended. Online reviews can help surface harder-to-uncover gems (i.e., Punjabi Deli has 4.8 stars on Google Maps!), but keep your eyes open and you might see lines going in and happy faces coming out of a place you might want to check it out. (Upon reading this note, Sean started rattling off countless bagel shops and pizzerias and another favorite, Zaragoza Deli & Grocery, further up in the East Village.)
11. Picnic all day every day (or at least once a trip)
Picnics are a perfect way to: 1. Get outside; 2. Sample local produce; 3. Save money while traveling; and 4. Allow kids to run amok and make as much noise as the like while eating your meal without any glances. My favorite picnic combination is this simple trio: a fresh baguette, hummus, and olives from a market. In Paris, if possible, but replicable with variations almost anywhere. Find a seat, smile, and eat.