Paris and Amsterdam, Together
When Erik Torkells told his sister, Molly, he'd take her anywhere in the world as a 40th-birthday present, she picked Las Vegas. Clearly, there was work to be done.
Pay attention to how things are different. Embracing cultural differences--while they still exist--is what sets travelers apart from tourists. We got a kick out of how Dutch street sweepers use brooms made with twigs (in Paris, the twigs are neon-green plastic). In Amsterdam, we had mayonnaise on the superb fries at Vlaams Frites Huis, and at a supermarket, we bought chocolate sprinkles for Molly's kids to put on their toast. At our hotel, 't Hotel, we ate cold cuts and cheese for breakfast, commiserated about those half-panels of glass Europeans use in showers, and thought of Anne Frank every time we walked up the canal house's staircase--it was a "leg breaker," to use Frank's phrase.
Indulge in some familiarity when you need it. In Paris, when Molly said she wanted to go to a Starbucks, I blanched--but I gave in. Being in an unfamiliar culture for a week can be taxing, and sometimes we all need a break. In fact, that may be why many of us who don't follow art in our daily lives troop to museums when we travel. Museums are comfortable; you know more or less the experience you're going to get. That may also be why we went twice to the slick new Amsterdam wine bar Vyne--it felt like a place back home in the States. (Both times, the waitress made a point of explaining that the bar is not for beer lovers.)
Do lots of advance research. I ask friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and anyone else I know for recommendations; in Amsterdam, that's how we came to eat croquette sandwiches at Eetsalon Van Dobben, a retro lunch counter, and to devour the caramely stroopwafels warm from a griddle at the Albert Cuypmarkt, a street market in De Pijp.
And whenever I read about someplace that sounds appealing, I rip (or print) the page out and save it. My Paris file turned up some good stuff. Food blogger Clotilde Dusoulier raved about Rose Bakery, in Montmartre. It's delightfully casual, with Brita water pitchers on each table and an old fridge in the dining room. I still regret not buying a carrot cake on the way out. The U.K. version of Condé Nast Traveller, meanwhile, praised the rustic charms of Les Vivres, a little café and shop about a 10-minute walk from Rose Bakery. The strawberry jam has ruined American jam for me. (Editor's note: Les Vivres has since closed.) And we were right to follow the lead of The New York Times' Mark Bittman, who wrote that he has a falafel sandwich at L'As du Fallafel whenever he's in town.
If you don't obsessively collect travel info, you can get by with Pudlo Paris, a guide that only became available in English in June. I knew that Gilles Pudlowski and I would get along when he had good things to say about Chez Michel, out near the Gare du Nord. It has delicious seafood and an easygoing atmosphere: When Molly ordered the cheese, the waitress set a tray on the table and let her eat as much as she pleased. Among the new spots that Pudlo steered us to was Les Papilles, a wine shop in the Latin Quarter that doubles as a restaurant. The €31 prix fixe dinner included a tureen of velvety cold leek soup; veal with spring vegetables; goat cheese with a tapenade crouton; and a parfait of strawberries, mascarpone, and pistachios. For wine, you buy a bottle off the shelves and pay a €7 corkage fee.
Learn to recognize a winner. When in doubt, I follow the locals--especially if they seem like people I'd want to hang out with. While having a beer outside Café Brandon, we noticed the line growing at Da Portare Via next door. People were buying pizzas and either eating them at Café Brandon or sitting next to the canal. We did the same, and though you'd never go to Amsterdam for the pizza, it was a perfect evening.
For fancier meals, I look for certain signs. We were walking around the Jordaan when the neighborhood turned a little bourgeois. At Bordewijk, there was one good omen after another: no English menu posted outside; a stylish room; staffers working in the kitchen at 2 p.m.; someone's name (it turned out to be chef/owner Wil Demandt) on the business card. We justified the cost by celebrating Molly's birthday there. We had an extraordinary dinner. Demandt personally translated the entire menu for us--it was early in the season, so he hadn't written the English version yet. Molly got to taste all sorts of new things, including caviar, truffles, and at least one food she had never wanted to try (an amuse bouche of herring with jenever cream).
Don't stress out when you look like an idiot. At Hôtel de la Bretonnerie, in the Marais, our safe was broken, and we had to ask the snotty hotel clerk to send someone to fix it. So when we couldn't turn the shower on, we were convinced it was broken, too. We bugged the clerk again, and two workers came up. One flipped a little lever, and water streamed out of the shower. He looked very sad for me, in that way that only French people know how to do.