The holy grail of travel off the beaten path (for me, anyways): finding that local restaurant where they are serving great, cheap local cuisine with no tourists to be found. I am talking about the type of restaurant that is one big adventure, because no one speaks English, and there might not be a menu in English to fall back on.
A great, local restaurant is like a cultural fondue pot, where you have a opportunity for you to mix and mingle with locals on their own turf, and get a real taste for everyday life in the place that you are visiting (not the watered down, tourist version that you get in the main tourist haunts.)
Even if you don’t speak the same language, your confusion will perhaps open up the doors to communication with some helpful locals, and sharing food is a universal tradition of friendship.
The food might not be as flashy as the food that you would get in the touristy restaurant, but it will be REAL (and I can almost guarantee that eating in a real, local restaurant, whether the experience is good or terrible, will be a most memorable part of your travels!)
Finding these off the beaten path gems is sometimes harder than it would seem, and sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to do it.
Tips for Finding Authentic, Local Restaurants:
If you consistently find yourself eating bland, tasteless tourist food, don’t despair. Your “spider sense” for finding good, local food will get better with time. Each trip, try to push yourself outside of your comfort zone a little bit.
Get off of the tourist path: This is common advice, but it is so very true. If you want to find the authentic, cheap food that the locals eat, you have to go where the locals go. This is generally not the same place that the hordes of tourists hang out (more tourists also equals higher prices). Often, heading just a block or two off of the tourist path is far enough. Take a chance. Wander down a quiet looking street to see what you find.
Follow the locals: Now, I don’t mean that you should stalk anyone, but watch where they are heading around meal time. If you see a restaurant or street food stand with a lot of local people around it, chances are you will find some good, cheap food.
Follow your nose: In my experience, it is rare for one of those generic, tourist restaurants to exude smells that draw you in from blocks away. If you smell something good, see if you can figure out which direction it is coming from. If you can’t, ask someone.
Talk to people: Be brave. Talk to the natives. They probably won’t bite. For me, this is the heart of authentic travel. Finding that off the beaten path gem because you chatted with a a local while waiting for a bus=priceless. Chat with your cab driver-they are great sources of local information!
In addition to giving you great advice about where to find authentic experiences on your travels, making these connections with local people will give you more depth to your experience and is likely to create some of the most vivid memories from your trip!
Look for restaurants that are clean…but not too clean: I think that this is the number one guideline for finding great local food. Good restaurants that cater to locals have a certain look about them. Think about your favorite hole in the wall restaurant in your home town. Is it a shiny, clean place that someone visiting from another country would be drawn to? Probably not.
It might be a little scuffed up around the edges…a little gritty, a little dingy. Now, apply this image to looking for a great place to eat when traveling. Look for a place with those characteristics; a place that a local would feel completely comfortable eating at but that a tourist might pass by.
Learn Some Basic “food” Words in the Local Language: Each language has its own code words for cheap food. In Costa Rica, you might be looking for a restaurant that says “tipico”. In Japan, finding an “izakaya” will generally yield a cheap meal. Eating in France is almost never REALLY cheap, but if you find a cafe advertising a “prix fixe” meal, you will generally be getting the chefs choice of the day and a solid deal.
Knowing the local words for what it is that you are looking for can also help you in rudimentary communication with the locals. Chances are decent that the person that you are talking to does speak a little English, but they might be more likely to help lead you to their favorite cheap lunch spot if you give it a go in their language first!