We’ve all been there. It’s the first few hours of the holiday and you’re just off the plane, hot, bothered and hungry. And just down the road from the hotel are all those tempting restaurants with colourful awnings, parasol tables, understandable menus and men outside inviting you to eat.
It almost certainly won’t be the best meal of the holiday.
We did it in Athens in a square full of restaurants with outside tables on a warm Greek night. Of course it had to be moussaka, probably the worst slop we’ve eaten, straight out of the freezer and into the microwave.
We did it in Brussels, just off the Grand Place, down that street with places selling moules and frites. The mussels were tasteless, the chips out of a bag. We should have kept on walking.
Another Helping’s Golden Rule No 1: Beware of restaurants touting for business. If they are good enough, they don’t need it. Which leads us to Golden Rule No 2: Try a little further afield and, if possible, go a little outside your comfort zone. It will very probably be worth it.
I know it’s becoming trendy to rave about little salt of the earth out of the way places but sometimes you can strike lucky. Not always. I followed up a rave review in one online guide and wondered what the fuss was about. Perhaps the owner had written it himself or the reviewer was just having a laugh. But don’t be put off the idea.
The other week in Porto we took the train along the River Douro valley. It’s well worth it only you won’t see the river for the first hour, then views are spectacular. We stopped two hours down the line in the middle of the Port wine region at the little town of Regua needing lunch.
Without a smartphone we couldn’t look up TripAdvisor and even if we had we wouldn’t have found it as the Adega Popular wasn’t listed. We wandered aimlessly until my eye was taken by a green canopy over a door leading off a steep, narrow lane, the Rua do Primeiro de Dezembro. We went in to find a party of workmen finishing their lunch at a long narrow table. Apart from them, there was just a middle aged couple and us.
The owner asked if we spoke Portuguese. No. Did he speak English? No. French? “Un peu.” We were on. “Le menu?” He shrugged and pointed to an A –board on the pavement with the limited day’s menu chalked up. We went out to inspect it and translated it from Portuguese to French to English.
“Coelho estufado?” “Lapin,” he said. Ah, rabbit stew. My wife had the vitela, veal. Now it really was good. My stew, on the bone, was hearty, the veal steak massive, blushing red and tender. With bread, olives, oil, two mains, a shared pudding, two coffees and a bottle of wine we had change from 30 euros. What a bargain.
The previous year in Lisbon we’d wandered down a side street, Rua Praia do Bom Sucesso, to find the lively Restaurante O Recanto, full of locals and office workers. There was no English menu but our chicken escalope and cheese salad and bottle of vinho verde went down very well and cost us peanuts.
Then there was that lunch in Venice not more than 300m from the Grand Canal, by the side of which a couple of coffees can cost 10 euros. Not here. This was a workmen’s café which had escaped the gentrification of the area and was still selling cheap, robust, authentic food with a menu solely in Italian.
And probably one of the best meals we had in Venice. Well, there was that great pizzeria, a good 15 minutes walk from our hotel, well out of the tourist zone . . .