Avoid over-hyped must-do eateries, and we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t as travel writers. But these over-exposed eateries, whether street food stalls or fine dining restaurants end up being the most disappointing. And nobody wants a bad meal when they travel.
Ever since we started our professional travel and food writing careers many years ago, we’ve struggled with writing about overtly popular eating establishments — any place where money is exchanged for food, from street food joints to staid multi-Michelin-starred credit card destroyers.
Here’s why we avoid over-hyped must-do eateries and why we think you should too…
Why We Avoid Over-Hyped Must-Do Eateries
From that ‘best pad Thai’ place in Bangkok (not amazing and not really a dish we crave when we hit BKK) to ‘iconic’ restaurants such as the ridiculous ‘underwater’ seafood fine diner in the basement of Dubai’s Burj al Arab, we’re placed in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ dilemma as travel writers.
To not visit a perennially popular spot or ignore the over-hyped newcomer makes it look like you haven’t done your homework — a case in point being the eating establishments in that iconic Dubai hotel, the Burj al Arab.
“Why do you not have that restaurant from the Burj al Arab in your manuscript?” asked a guidebook editor some years ago.
“That restaurant is terrible. It’s bullshit,” I replied.
I think we agreed to including the afternoon tea experience at the Burj in the book. Despite its hefty price, at least visitors would see the flamboyant interior of the building and enjoy some fantastic views while sipping an extortionate cuppa. Our editor wasn’t happy, but I was.
A couple of years after the book was published, the Burj Al Arab chef and butcher confessed to taking nearly 900,000 UAE dirhams in kickbacks in return for buying sub-par seafood and other ‘fresh’ food supplies. While I had no knowledge of this at the time, I knew something was amiss (ahem, fishy?) and really pushed to ensure that it didn’t get in the book, despite the hype. And, yes, I’ve been known to send an ‘FYI’ email to editors when my suspicions on these subjects were confirmed. You bet I fired one off.
However, stupid hype isn’t confined to top-end restaurants. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘revered’ street food stalls in Bangkok that have been overexposed by lazy journos and travel writers. We copped flack from some self-styled ‘foodies’ when we lived in Bangkok because we liked returning to a popular local eat street where we could enjoy reliably good satay sticks, noodle soups and stir-fries rather than seek out the favourites idolised by (generally expat) ‘experts’.
I have used the term ‘experts’ with caution, because their qualifications amounted to either being able to order in Thai (knowledge of language does not equal food knowledge) or being in a relationship with a Thai person, because, you know, all Thai people are food experts…
Most of the best street food spots we’ve found in Bangkok are generally not on the foodie radar. They’ve either been out-of-the-way stalls we’ve stumbled upon that we’d never find again or modest places casually mentioned by chefs and restaurateurs that you have to solve a puzzle to find and pray that they are open when you track them down to sample that one special dish.
We normally don’t write about these places. But we will pass these tips on to other people we trust when they visit Bangkok. We don’t want to overexpose a small stall that couldn’t handle the extra traffic that mass exposure would bring.
With that ‘best pad Thai’ place in Bangkok, it was once amazing before it was included in every guidebook in every language, which drew a crazy number of diners to the place. The lines are now so long that the cooks there have to work so fast and so sloppy that it goes against everything that good street food can be and should be. It’s a circus.
Over the years we’ve had to decide whether to write about countless ‘must-do’ restaurants and eateries that upon receiving accolades, such as ‘author’s choice’ in a popular guidebook, or being featured in a TV travel and food show hosted by an ex-chef, have cashed in on their new-found fame.
One once-wonderful tapas joint in Barcelona went from casually serving great little dishes to a crowded bar of patrons to having long lines of sweaty tourists waiting outside an hour before the shutters open, only to be seated with knives, forks, napkins, and a set menu. It ain’t tapas anymore.
Other eateries, like a famous pizza place in Rome, don’t change the model to sate the new clientele. They just try pushing through as many people as possible while adding extra cheese to satisfy the appetites of tourists who are wondering why ‘deep dish’ isn’t an option.
On our recent trip to Penang, we learned that food tourists, mainly young Asians (other Malaysians, Singaporeans, and Chinese mainly), are in Georgetown specifically for a few days of eating, with a long list of spots to tick off. They’re not doing anything else according to hotel staff we spoke to — some are eating twelve times a day. Now that’s dedication.
One of those spots that bewilderingly and inexplicably has long lines outside, all day every day, for what’s meant to be Georgetown’s best coffee, kaya toast and eggs, served the least interesting and appetising of any of these set breakfasts that we’ve ever tried.
As it was near our hotel we noted that by 10am every day the place had about 20 to 30 Asian kids in big sunglasses, armed with Fuji cameras and maps with ‘must-do’ eateries circled, patiently waiting for a table to free up.
When we’re on these eating trips we never line up. We don’t have time. If we find a place that’s interesting and it’s really busy, we’ll take a photo to check it out later and swing back around at a different time of day in the hope it’s not busy.
We eventually tried the famous coffee and kaya toast place and it was a waste of a meal. We won’t write about it. As we don’t have to answer to anyone these days, no editor is going to ask, “I heard about this egg place that’s really popular…”
Do you avoid over-hyped must-do eateries or can you not resist finding out for yourself if they live up to the hype? How do you decide where to eat when you’re travelling?