The Traveling Gourmet

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Eating cheaply but well

Napoleon told us that 'an army marches on its stomach;' so do tourists. People enjoy their trips if the food at their destination is tasty and cheap; they feel vaguely dissatisfied if the meals there are dull and expensive. It's often as simple as that. And the country that can't provide decent dining at a reasonable price, is doomed to lose its vitality in tourism. Russia is a current example.

Often, however, visitors themselves can both lower the cost and increase the enjoyment of eating with wise decisions. From a lifetime of pondering different approaches to meals in a foreign land, I've developed a dozen mighty rules:

Eat what they're eating

Concentrate on the local specialties: pasta in Italy, steak-and-kidney pie in Britain, herring in Scandinavia, moo goo gai pan in Taiwan. Local favorites are any nation's best dishes, well prepared and also cheap. Try ordering your own familiar favorites instead--a U.S. hamburger, a martini, apple pie--and you'll pay far too much for items poorly prepared.

Drink what they're drinking

In a wine-drinking country (France, Italy), order wine, not beer. The wine is marvelous and cheap; the beer execrable and no bargain. Contrary-wise, in a beer-drinking country (Germany, Scandinavia), drink beer not wine--the former is cheap and top-notch.

Eat what they're eating at the time when they're eating it

Follow the "food patterns" of the country in question. If their habit is to have a tiny breakfast and a giant lunch (Spain, France, Italy, Greece), you have the same. If, instead, you order a big breakfast in those countries, you'll pay through the nose for an inadequate meal. By contrast, if the tradition in a particular nation is to have a giant breakfast and a tiny lunch (Britain, Israel, Australia), do the same: you'll find that the mammoth breakfast is the best-prepared meal of the day, and relatively cheap.

Eat less than you think you want

We all eat far more while traveling than we are normally accustomed to at home. We feel intimidated, among other things, by foreign waiters. Will they think us an 'ugly American' if we don't order a soup-to-nuts meal? At home, none of us would dream of having four courses for lunch; yet overseas, we think it obligatory to order the table d'hote meal, and stuff ourselves into a state of torpor, at considerable expense, while the local resident at the next table has a refreshing, inexpensive, single plate.

Split, share and divide

Order one plate for the two of you, or an appetizer for her and a main course for you, and then split what arrives. You'll still send uneaten food back to the kitchen, and save money at the same time. The servings in most touristic restaurants are enough for a family (I exclude of course the haughty, haute cuisine places with their tiny portions). How many times, in a touristic setting, have you ordered a meat course for yourself, only to find it overflowing the plate, gargantuan, and impossible to finish? By ordering, say, one prime rib for the two of you, you end up with still more than enough, and save $17-or-so at the same time.

Eat picnic-style once a day

Instead of going to restaurants three times a day, and devouring one after another of those overly-rich, overly-sauced hot meals, alternate the routine; make one of those meals a cold, light snack, like a sandwich lunch at home. Go to the local equivalent of a delicatessen or to the food section of a department store. Order a slab of paté, some cheese, two rolls, two tomatoes, a pickle and wine, and then take the lot to a park bench or a river bank, and eat healthily, cheerfully--and for pennies. Oh, happy days!

Look before leaping

Never order any dish without first knowing its cost. Never patronize a restaurant that does not openly display its menu outside. Order nothing listed at "today's market price" or "s.g.'" (selon grosseur, according to weight). Give that latitude to a restaurant, and you'll pay a hideous price.

Beware of waiters bearing gifts

Eat nothing that's been placed on the table in advance of your arrival (like a jar of paté); it's priced at princely levels. Refuse anything (other than bread, butter, radishes, and the like) brought to your table unbidden in the midst of the meal unless it's explicitly described as free.

Avoid the "household words"

If the name of a restaurant immediately springs to mind in an unfamiliar city, it's because you've subliminally heard of it for decades. And that means: you're twenty years too late. The 'household words' are too often riding on their reputations, careless and blasé, and hideously overpriced. They can afford to be.

Never eat at airports

Stick sandwiches in your suitcase, pastries in your purse. Conceal a banana in the magazine you're carrying. Do anything, but don't place yourself in the position of ever having to eat at an airport. Need I explain why?

Patronize the marketplaces

When in doubt over where to eat in a strange foreign city, head for the big marketplace, the stalls under canvas or in a warehouse-like building where all the ingredients of meals are sold. Wherever there's a marketplace, there's a nearby restaurant with especially good prices for fresh food; that's because those marketplace eateries buy the makings for their meals from people they deal with throughout the day, at the very best rates.

Save your money for one big splurge

And finally, scrimp and save to the utmost, but treat yourself at the end of the stay to one memorable meal; it's the essential ending to a rewarding trip. Reserve at a three-star table in France, a four-fork restaurant in Spain, a shrine to food in Hong Kong. Have the chicken cooked for 24 hours in a clay casing (Hong Kong), the "poulet de Bresse" raised in a darkened coop and fed mashed grain mixed with sour milk (France), a suckling pig glazed over a smouldering wood fire (Spain). And then you'll know why so many Americans are travel addicts. An army marches on its stomach, and so do tourists.

Naming names

My very best meals ever: at Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, at Bouley's in New York City, at the Hostal Baumaniere in Provence, all three among the world's leaders in dining.

My very best cheap meals, guaranteed: mussels and french fries ("moules et frites") in Belgium. Why can't the rest of us make french fries like they do?

My all-time worst meals: at numerous hotel restaurants, and at a "household word" in Chicago (which last deserved its nationwide reputation a quarter of a century ago).

My worst-ever food decisions: to take the advice of a teenager, a hotel clerk, and a gas station attendant, respectively, about where to have lobster in Eastern Long Island, bar-b-que in Kansas City, salted crabs in Baltimore. (Those requests for advice should always be put to persons of the same age, background and outlook as yourself).

My second worst-ever food decision: to order 'Anguillas a la Bilbainas,' of which I had never heard, in Mallorca (they sounded colorful; they turned out to be worm-like baby eels, still writhing). I now carry a food dictionary to foreign restaurants.

My worst mistake in writing about restaurants: to mention what I myself had ordered, without explaining it was a purely casual, random choice. A restaurant owner in Florence, Italy, once told me that every morning in summer, he prepared in advance sixty apiece of the luncheon dishes I had casually mentioned (without meaning anything significant) in the Florence chapter of Europe on $5 a Day. Not only did 60 visitors daily follow my recommendation and go to that restaurant, but they then proceeded to order the very same meal I had!

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