Sometimes a perfect day for discerning travelers relies largely on the weather cooperating. At other times the weather be damned! Earlier this spring we spent a perfect day in Dublin and were determined that weather would not play a part in our enjoyment of every single moment – and that was a good thing!
We left our hotel (the Westin Dublin) shortly after a wonderful breakfast in their charming dining room heading across the street to Trinity College. Our first stop was to visit The Book of Kells and the old library. A library might not seem so exciting to you, but Patty has a long and happy association with libraries. He very first part-time job at the tender age of sixteen was working at her home town’s children’s library – the highlight of each week was setting up the projector on Saturday mornings to show short films to children huddled in a circle of tiny chairs. Then she stacked books at the main library during her first year in university. Art spent many hours searching for books in the old science library when he was an undergrad at the same university. So, the association is long and deep.
The Book of Kells is an extraordinary piece of history. Dating to what historians believe to be about 800 AD, the display of this illustrated text of the bible created by Columban monks evokes a feeling of closeness to history. And then you move into the old library with its extraordinary collection of antiquarian tomes that are currently being restored by artisans working on the mezzanine you can see above.
One of the things that made this visit so perfect was our timing: we visited in April and spent not a single minute in line, a situation that we’re told does not occur in high season. It was bliss! Then we walked out into the overcast day to make our way to the National Museum of Ireland.
Even if you’re not a museum lover, this is one not to be missed. We are constantly impressed by the skills of Irish and English museum curators to tell a story. Perhaps our impression results from these two countries having rich histories that date much further back in time than that of our young homeland. Whatever the reason, this museum transports you back in time to the Viking days of Ireland and then moves you through history. Who knew that bogs could preserve even clothing let alone human bodies for so many centuries? Even the building itself, purpose-built in the 19th century as a museum, is an outstanding specimen and should be appreciated in itself.
That visit finished, we headed outside and made our way to St. Stephen’s Green for a bit of outdoor appreciation. Our enjoyment was magnified by the fact that although Dublin is significantly farther north of our own home town, the climate is quite different and the spring was much further advanced here. The flowering trees were in full bloom and the respite from the noisy city was complete. Then it was time for lunch.
With a recommendation from our driver who would soon be taking us on that private tour of Ireland, we stopped into The Old Stand for a pub lunch and our first taste of Guinness. This is a pub that has been in this same location on Exchequer Street for some 300 years. When the waiter placed the coaster on the table upon which to place the half-pint of dark, frothy Guinness, we both smiled and asked him how he knew. Knew what, he asked. That we were Canadians. The coaster was an advertisement for Canadian beer that was at that time being widely promoted in Ireland with the slogan “From our land to yours.” He smiled broadly when we told him we were Canadians as Patty tasted her first Guinness. Then it was off to a famous landmark.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral dates from 1220 AD; a visit to Dublin would not be complete without seeing it. What a surprise it was for us to find out that this well-known landmark is not a Roman Catholic Church at all, but rather the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland, a denomination of Anglican persuasion. We know that a steady diet of church visits is not everyone’s choice when touring – it is not ours either. But from time to time you do need to visit a church or two to really get the flavor of the place in time. So that’s why we then planned a walking route across the River Liffey to find St. Michan’s church. And that’s when the heaven’s opened and we found ourselves in a veritable deluge. Although we had umbrellas, the wind was moving the torrents of rain horizontally so they did us little good. We took refuge under the eaves of the law courts for a few minutes until we thought it safe to continue. We were wrong. By the time we reached out destination we were soaked. Good thing that this particular church is known for its dry interior!
Not exactly on the tourist route, St. Michan’s church is Dublin’s oldest north-side parish church founded in 1095 with the present structure dating to 1685. It’s that dry interior in both the church itself and the vaults beneath that are what makes this church so interesting. That’s why there are completely preserved, desiccated bodies that can be seen as you make your way down into the underground vaults with the guide who is a cross between Boris Karloff and a stand-up comedian.
After two churches, a museum and a library, and finding ourselves still on the north bank of the Liffey, it was time for something completely different. A short walk found us standing in front of the National Leprechaun Museum. We know. We can hear you now. The Discerning Travelers at a museum dedicated to leprechauns? In a word, yes.
A relatively new addition to the tourist attractions in Dublin, this is less of a museum than it is a place to hear a really good story teller tell stories about one of Ireland’s most ubiquitous mythological characters. Patty’s opening question to the ticket seller at the front was, “Do you let adults in?” To which he replied that in fact adults were their main audience. So we entered, and we enjoyed.
The sun was out when we emerged from our stories of the “little people” and it was now late in the day. We had one more important stop to make.
On Custom House quay in the Docklands area is the mesmerizing Famine Memorial that remembers the great famine that engulfed the Irish people in the mid- 19th century. Although our histories are a bit murky, it’s likely that Patty’s family made their way to Canada aboard one of the so-called famine ships. The monument that we had to see is a heart-breaking set of bronze sculptures that depict hollow-eyed, hungry people making their way along the banks of the River Liffey toward the ships that promised them a new life in a far-away land. And for many of them, this promise came true, as their descendants have the privilege of traveling the world to appreciate all that it has to offer.
If you want more of our “perfect days”…
Castle – the very word conjures up images of knights and ladies, opulence and intrigue. And a trip to Ireland would not be complete without a few castles. So, when we planned our recent chauffeured tour of the Emerald Isle, we made sure that there were castles along the way, both to visit and to stay. So, come along with us for a trip into history and share our castle experience.
Let’s start by making sure we know what the term castle means (trust us; this is important if you’re to understand the experience!).
Most people think that castles are home to royalty and their servants (that would be a palace by actual definition), but the real definition of a castle has more to do with fortifications and protection – and it was not always for royalty, although given the resources needed to actually build one, clearly they were not erected by the common man – or woman. So when you consider visiting – or staying in – a castle, you’re really going to be experiencing an historical creation that might have been built by royalty, but more likely was built by other powerful leaders or even families who needed to protect villages or families, or both.
As we left Dublin we headed south toward Blarney, home to the famous Blarney Castle with its legendary stone that must be kissed (we’ll get to that!). Built some six centuries ago by a powerful Irish chieftain, Blarney Castle itself might take you by surprise. It is a tower castle, and as such when you go inside you are on the bottom floor of a relatively small tower that once had a number of stories each of whose floor was at one time made of wood so now no longer exists – you can see right up through to the sky. But you need to make your way up to the top via a narrow, well-worn stone stairway, and as you do, think about what it must have been like to fight your way up or down those narrow stairs! When we reached the top we were rewarded by a breathtaking view of Blarney Castle’s gardens which were fabulous in their early-spring glory. And at the top, the Blarney Stone awaits.
In case you’ve forgotten, the whole point of kissing the stone is so that you can acquire the ‘gift of the gab.’ Well, anyone who has ever met Patty in particular will know that this is wholly redundant! But she reluctantly took her place on her back on the stone floor of the open-air battlement, and duly hung her head out backwards into the opening in the stone work as you must, since the Blarney stone must be kissed from underneath while one’s head hangs out hundreds of feet above ground. In position, she decided that she didn’t really need to kiss the place that hundreds of other lips had just passed over. But it was worth it all the same. One legend has it that a certain goddess told the builder of Blarney Castle, who was at the time embroiled in a lawsuit, to kiss the first stone he saw on his way out the door for the gift of eloquence which evidently was bestowed up on him by the ritual.
After that first castle experience we visited a number of other tower castles, eventually making our way to County Mayo and the wonderful Ashford Castle, a very different sort of experience. Here we stayed for two nights on this magnificent estate whose origins date to 1228. Through the ensuing centuries, pieces were added until the estate – castle and grounds on the shores of the lake Corrib – were acquired in 1852 by Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the Guinness beer fame. It was eventually sold; in 1939 it was first transformed into what was then referred to as a “first-class hotel.” It passed through the hands of several owners until this day when it stands as a grand hotel that has been voted the number 1 hotel in Ireland by Condé Nast Traveller many times, and Trip Advisor’s number 1 European castle hotel; it has also garnered a mass of other accolades.
So we spent two days strolling the grounds and exploring the grand building, feeling a bit like royalty ourselves. As we walked through the striking rooms, we found ourselves swept back in time. The floors creak a bit but the décor is authentic – and priceless. Our discerning scrutiny, as always, looks to the service as the piece that is most important in the end, and Ashford Castle did not disappoint (with one small exception of a surly bartender who was reformed by the following evening!).
We spent our last night in Ireland sitting in the magnificent lounge listening to a wonderful trio of singer, pianist and guitarist whose smooth melodies lulled us into complete relaxation. Their rendition of The Fields of Athenry will always stay with us – haunting us, no doubt, until we return to the Emerald Isle.
Bespoke…the very word conjures up images of the rich and famous standing in front of a mirror as they are measured for their custom-made suits and dresses. It seems like anything that is custom-made for you must, by its very nature, be expensive and out of reach.
But what if you were able to work with a travel professional who was an expert in her field to create for you that customized trip that would fulfill your dreams of seeing some places that have long been on your bucket list? And what if you were picked up at the airport by an immaculately-clad driver who led you to a shiny black Mercedes to take you on an orientation tour of the city before ensuring that you were well taken care of at your hotel? And what if this whole experience didn’t cost you nearly as much as you’re beginning to think as you read this?
Well, welcome to the world of bespoke travel – and we’re just back from another customized tour, this time created for us by world-renowned Kensington Tours.
It all began at the Dublin Airport last month when we were that couple being escorted to the Mercedes by the impeccable driver who then proceeded to not only drive us to our downtown hotel, but act as our guide. An expert in Irish history, he was an amazing font of information that we capitalized on the next day as we explored Dublin on our own (after following his spot-on recommendation to dine at Trocadero that evening).
Although it had been the plan to have the same driver from the very beginning to the bitter end, our scheduled driver was ill and was replaced while we were still in Dublin by Kevin – and he was as wonderful as the first driver. We were soon to find out that his extensive knowledge of Ireland and all things Irish, coupled with the fact that he seemed to know everyone in the country (and we do mean everyone), were designed to make this trip a flawless experience of a lifetime that will go down in our travel books as the only way to go!
While still in Dublin, Kevin took us on a half-day trip to Newgrange to visit the stone-age passage tomb that pre-dates the Egyptian pyramids. Never hovering over us, he provided us with important clues to maximizing the experience and then left us to take advantage of the venue on our own with the expert guidance of the tour leader. (One important tip he gave us was to buy an Irish Heritage card that would give us access to many heritage sites throughout the country for one small price. No more buying tickets!). This passage into ancient history is not to be missed while in Ireland!
Picking us up at 10 am the next morning, Kevin slightly modified our planned itinerary to improve our experience. We are always open to suggestions from those who know better and we were not disappointed. As a trio we reviewed each day’s itinerary in advance to ensure that what we experienced was not only the best of Ireland, but the things that were of most interest to us as individuals. This attention to personalization is one of the things that we seek as discerning travelers who are focused on service and value. And we received both.
Although we had chosen to book our own hotel in Dublin, we allowed Kensington’s Ireland specialist to select our deluxe accommodations for the rest of the trip. We were not disappointed on this front either. We spent the first night in Cork at Hayfield Manor, a wonderful property at the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac bordering on the University of Cork. The service at this highly-recommended hotel is outstanding, as is the dining.
We then spent two nights at Killarney Park Hotel in County Kerry, a surprisingly special place. Purpose built as a hotel only 20 years ago, this property imbues you with the feeling that you’d been transported into a centuries-old country manor. Its location downtown Killarney allowed us to spend a wonderful evening exploring the tiny streets, eating at a restaurant recommended to us by Kevin, and then spending an hour at a pub with a beer in hand humming along with the Irish singers. It was reminiscent of our university days when Irish music was all the rage on Canadian university campuses. But that was a long time ago!
Our last two nights on the road were spent at Ashford Castle. What a wonderful experience. To describe our experience at this castle would take an entire blog post – and we’ll do that next week, so come back if you want to know more about it.
Every moment of the trip was an experience to be remembered for a lifetime. From our visit to Trinity College and the Book of Kells in Dublin, to Blarney Castle, the Irish pub night, the breathtaking Dingle peninsula, the monastery ruins, and everything in between, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to travel.
We have already begun to plan our next bespoke trip with Kensington. Now all we have to do is decide if it will be South America, a safari in Africa or the Great Wall of China! Stay tuned.
Now if you a few minutes, come along with us on our tour of Ireland.
We do love to have new dining experiences when we travel. We’ve waxed rapturously before about those times when we’ve had that defining experience that stays with us for years to come (The Cliff in Barbados comes to mind) – and despite opinions to the contrary, dining is not just about the food.
The concept of those restaurants that boast “stars” – you know the ones: those Michelin stars – is one that is intriguing for us when we travel. Usually, we’ll want to splurge on one such experience during a trip, but our travel mantra is more focused on service and the overall experience, regardless of price or even some kind of external validation that is something like a Michelin star.
Last month we had the pleasure of a wonderful trip to Ireland with a three-day stop in Dublin. Searching for restaurants, we found Chapter One, and even our driver recommended it. We stopped by the concierge at the wonderful Westin Dublin where we stayed, and miracle of miracles, he was able to procure for us a table for that very evening. We had heard that you have to book weeks if not months in advance. So we were excited.
Even when you “Google” Chapter One the heading on the web site as listed in the results says, “Chapter One Michelin Star Restaurant Dublin…” So it would seem that this little star is important and that restaurants trade on it. But what does it really mean and will it guarantee a great dining experience?
According to Michelin’s own web site, the stars are awarded based on a “clandestine” approach to evaluation wherein their “full-time professional inspectors” (!) anonymously partake of repeated test meals. In other words, the evaluators are unknown to the restaurant and they could be there any day without notice. Their description of what the stars mean is very telling from our perspective: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate, meaning the quality of products, the mastering of flavors, mastering of cooking, personality of the cuisine, value for the money and the consistency of what the restaurant offers to its customers both throughout the menu and the year.” [from their web site]
The notion of stars referring to only what is actually on the plate says a lot to us as discerning diners: we now know not to expect much in terms of service, consideration of clients or even selection of wines or spirits. Case in point: our recent visit to the one-starred Chapter One.
We arrived there one lovely April evening to be greeted by fantastically friendly staff, although to be truthful, we found everyone to a person in Ireland to have this same approach, so it was no surprise. Although we arrived on time for our dinner reservation, we were led to a tiny bar to sit, order a drink and in due course actually see a menu and order food – all before going to our table. This was surprising, but we accepted it as their “way.” We ordered two Martini Biancos on the rocks only to be told they had enough for only one. So whose job is it to ensure that the bar is always fully stocked, we wondered? Not to worry though, we enjoy other drinks. Okay, we thought, so they don’t have it. What about an Aperol spritz? The waiter had never heard of Aperol. Two strikes and we haven’t even seen the menu. He eventually
consulted with someone else who procured a bottle with some Aperol left in it and proceeded to produce for us Aperol topped with soda. Oh dear. An Aperol spritz, as any worthy bartender ought to know is topped with Prosecco, not soda and is served with a slice or twist of orange in a large wine glass, not an old-fashioned! However, we saw no point in getting off to a really bad start and looking like annoying tourists, so we sucked it up. Then it was on to the menu.
It was interesting and we found several selections to look forward to. A waiter then took our dinner order, and were eventually led to our table. With a corner vantage point, we could see the small room well. It was one of two connected rooms, and we could see a private dining area beyond. What struck as the most al throughout the evening (and it was long – too long for our liking) was the feverish activity displayed by one and all. The waiters flew back and forth past the table so fast it seemed as if they were in training for a sprint. In our view, it’s fine to be busy, but there should be a degree of calmness exhibited in the presence of the guests so that they can enjoy a relaxed evening. The stress level was palpable and could have been contagious if we hadn’t already had a drink! In spite of all of the frenetic activity though, we had been in the place for an hour before we had an appetizer.
There’s something about the ambience that makes an evening special. Wonderful food is nice – and the food that evening was nice, but hardly worth the price (we’ve had a lot better elsewhere) – but the feeling we had was that old army saying: “Hurry up and wait.” Additionally, there was no background music at all to provide even a perception of peace. So, for us, the evening was not worth the price we paid for it – and it was expensive. In truth, the restaurant holds one star which Michelin defines as indicating “a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard. A good place to stop on your journey.” After several days in Dublin, we’d have to say that if you have limited time (and/or resources) there are much better places where the experience will be more delightful. The Pearl, a lovely French restaurant comes to mind: we had a wonderful evening enjoying the food and the ambience, where the relaxed atmosphere coupled with the knack for French sauces had us swooning.
Our conclusion is that when selecting restaurants, those Michelin stars tell only part of the story – a story which is very clearly described on the Michelin web site itself: “The star symbols judge only what’s on the plate…” and even at that, you might not agree. So for us Michelin stars don’t really provide the kind of discerning travel guidance we’re seeking. We have just by happenstance landed in Michelin-starred restaurants before and enjoyed ourselves. But you won’t need a Michelin star to do that!
No travel experience would be complete without a bit of champagne, don’t you think? When we visited the champagne district in France a few years ago, in addition to our unforgettable visit to the Veuve Clicquot caves (if you read our blog regularly, you’ll know that it is our preferred brand), we visited the resting place of the monk Dom Perignon who is credited with “discovering” champagne. Upon first tasting his concoction, he is reported as having said to a fellow monk, “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars…”
There really is something special about the experience of champagne; something a bit festive – a feeling that these discerning travelers relish when taking in new travel experiences. Perhaps it’s the bubbles; or it might be the sparkle of a pristine flute. Or maybe it’s that pop of the cork that has us conditioned to expect something a bit more special than our ordinary lives. Whatever it is, that notion of something beyond our everyday existence is at the heart of discerning travel experiences in our view. And we’ve just returned from yet another remarkable trip that started in – of all the unexpected places – Manchester, UK. But the champagne connection…we’re getting to that.
When we were spending wonderful afternoons sipping champagne at the Veuve Clicquot champagne bar on a trans-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Mary 2 a couple of years ago, we never considered that a visit to Manchester (as a prelude to a tour of Ireland) to see our son in the UK tour of Cats, the musical that we’d find ourselves visiting a champagne bar three times in five days. But there nestled on the second floor of a rather modern building among the history in Manchester is the unexpectedly wonderful Épernay.
Named for the city 130 km northeast of Paris in the Champagne district of France where you can find the cellars of famed champagne producers Perrier-Jouët and Moët& Chandon, among others, this Épernay is a real find.
We stumbled upon it at the end of a long day of a self-directed walking tour covering the entire downtown are of this interesting city. We first spied the lights outlining the bottom of the second-floor windows and looked up to see tables topped with sparkling glasses which set us off in search of the entrance around the corner. It turned out that had we approached it from the opposite direction we would have found that it was a stone’s throw away from the Opera House where Cats was in residence for the better part of the month of April.
We ventured up the stairs and emerged into an outer bar area which led into the charming main area decorated by a line of empty champagne bottles of every label and vintage. We settled into leather seats by the floor-to-ceiling windows and ordered a glass of Veuve and a plate of pitta (their spelling) bread and dips. While savoring our reward for a wonderful day of new city experiences, we struck up a conversation with one of the very personable servers who recommended a champagne cocktail. Oddly, we had never experienced a classic champagne cocktail before that time, always wanting to savor champagne in its purest form. Of course we’d had Bellini’s, Kir Royale and other concoctions, but never a classic one. And so we ordered.
We have discovered a new cocktail experience, enjoying it so much that we took our son back there after a performance two nights later so that he could have his first one. Why have we never had one before? And it’s so simple. A sugar cube is placed in the bottom of a champagne flute, a few drops of bitters are added and then the cube is soaked in cognac. Fill up the glass with champagne, and you have heaven in a glass.
Or maybe it’s just the thought of a those bubbles. F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have been moved by drinking champagne saying: “I had taken two finger-bowls of Champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.” That’s it: significant & profound, as every discerning travel experience should be.
Dining (not just eating) is one of the great pleasures of traveling. When we think back to that time several years ago when we almost bought a time-share, it was the dining issue that finally brought us to our senses.
While sitting in the lobby of said time-share property, we noted with growing alarm a phenomenon that is anathema to our personal traveling esthetic. First, there was neither bar nor restaurant on site. Second – and perhaps more shudder -inducing – was that people were one after the other schlepping groceries into the elevators. That was our eureka moment! We wanted no part of a traveling lifestyle that involved the expectation that one would regularly grocery shop, cook and eat in a suite. For us, finding those perfect places to eat is part of the fun of planning a trip; and enjoying the good and bad experiences as a result is all part of the pleasure of learning about new places. Oh, and the actual experience of a wonderful meal and its ambience is part of it, too. So, just how do we make dining plans?
First, not all dining while traveling needs be planned in advance. In fact, we’ve had some wonderful experiences that serendipitously came our way while wandering around unknown cities. We happened on Bentley’s in London this way and have since returned.
Recently we ate our way up the platinum coast of Barbados while spending five days at the wonderful property The House en route to a Seabourn cruise that left from Bridgetown. We used several approaches to find our experiences – most of which were phenomenal.
We usually begin our search for restaurants online – a search for the location uncovered a couple of restaurant names that we then took over t Fodors online for their review. We then looked at TripAdvisor, used our discerning approach to interpreting the reviews and wrote those names done in our little purple moleskine that we take on ever trip.
Once we got to Barbados we asked the concierge to make us reservations and asked her for further suggestions. She added a new restaurant to our list, made the reservations and we embarked on our terrific dining experience. Here’s what happened.
One not-to-be-missed place we had decided we wanted to dine before even leaving home soil was The Cliff. Here’s what we wrote in our TripAdvisor review when we returned home:
“The Cliff” is as much an experience as it is simply dining. Its breathtaking setting as the sun sets, the impeccable service, the beautifully served and wonderfully innovative food coupled with its terrific wine list, all serve to make the $245 per person minimum worth it! We think it turned out to be our most expensive dinner ever. But… It was worth it!
The other must-eat place (or so we thought) that was on our list was The Tides. We used the same approach to finding it as we did for The Cliff, its name residing in our little purple book. The concierge made us a reservation for 5:30 pm – this seems a tad early, but it was that or much too late. We arrived at the place perhaps ten minutes before our reservation only to be told that our table was not ready, and were ushered into the bar. An interesting bar filled with unusual local artwork, it seemed the place to order a small bottle of champagne, which we did. Time went by; other people entered the restaurant and were seated. We drank and waited. Then Art went out to the desk and asked if our table was ready. Oh, yes it was. Were they planning to ever seat us, or were we to continue drinking and racking up a bar bill? Not to worry. We were ushered into the restaurant and put at an unacceptable table. We were the only people in that section, and yet we were not permitted to sit at the table of our choice on the water’s edge. We were told that those tables were all booked for 8 pm and were not available to us. We promised to be finished by that time, and were told, no. We were unhappy. No, they told us, the other reservation might come early. We looked at each other – we had come early and that didn’t seem to matter to them. And, in fact if we had been seated at the time when our reservation was to be ready, we would certainly have been finished by 8. No. We could not sit there. The manager was brought to the table. An imposingly large man, he also said no. By this time we were not feeling too positively disposed to this restaurant. Perhaps if we had not had to sit and wait, being left drinking at the bar, Patty might not have been inclined to swear at him. To her later embarrassment (not one of her finer moments) she did; and we left. While waiting out front for our taxi driver to arrive, we remembered that we had not paid the bar bill. Art returned and paid it, taking the opportunity to snap a photo of the sign he had seen earlier in the men’s washroom.
So, there we were. Several glasses of champagne later, and still no dinner. Our own fault – we could have stayed, but we would have been severely ticked if we had eaten there and spent the entire time looking at the empty tables where we could have sat at the water’s edge. Serendipity to the rescue – sort of.
Our taxi driver was distressed that we had not been able to eat. So, he took us to Scarlett’s and asked the hostess if there was space. Well, she said, if they can be finished by 8:30 we certainly can accommodate them. Now why had that line been so hard to say at The Tides? It was now well after 7 pm, but we knew that we wouldn’t linger. We were not disappointed. What a wonderful find that was! The next morning we recounted our sad Tides story to a young American couple who we had chatted with the evening before. “Don’t worry,” said the young woman, “you didn’t miss anything.” Hmm…
We also ate at the new Cin-Cin on the recommendation of the concierge, as well as Daphne’s because it was actually at The House; these were equally wonderful experiences.
So, our recommended approaches to finding terrific restaurants are as follows:
- Restaurant Apps: Our favorite one for North America is Open Table and its British counterpart Top Table. These apps have stood us in good stead many times. One evening when we arrived at a Washington DC restaurant just across from the White House with a 7 pm reservation, we found it extremely crowded, wildly noisy and boasting a line-up of people with 6:45 reservations who had yet to be seated. We looked at each other and turned back into the revolving doors, finding ourselves on the sidewalk outside and no dinner. The IPhone to the rescue! We searched on Open Table for restaurants near us with reservation slots within a half an hour. We were very shortly on our way to a new reservation at 10-minute walk away and had a wonderful evening. These are not the only apps that are worthwhile. Check out 9 Restaurant Apps Worth Downloading and Maximize Your Weekend with the 35 Most Popular Restaurant Apps.
- Online Restaurant Reviews: As online reviewers ourselves, we know that these can be helpful (!). That being said, you do need to be a bit discerning when interpreting these personal perspectives – there is nothing very objective about it. However, you can make them useful to you by looking at a couple of things. If the review is very negative in the face of more positive reviews, note how many reviews the reviewer has done. Many times it’s a first or second-time reviewer who only posts to vent. Then read what people say. If they gave the restaurant in question five stars and then go on to say that it was noisy and kid-friendly, if you are looking for a quiet evening out as a couple, you probably need to steer clear despite its high rating. Then, you can actually read the profiles of reviewers on sites like TripAdvisor (ours is here). If they share your approach to travel, then you are more likely to find their reviews useful. Then go ahead and click that it was helpful if you find it to be so. This helps with the rating of the reviewer. (Interestingly, research conducted at UC Berkley found that ratings from online reviews actually do have an impact on a restaurant’s business – this means that those reviews are important to the owners.)
- Recommendations from Hotel Concierges: Many people steer clear of recommendations from concierges because of a distaste for the probability that there is some kind of a kick-back or other relationship between the hotel/concierge and the restaurant. So what? That doesn’t mean that the recommendation isn’t going to be a great one. Remember that if guests take them up on their recommendations and are not happy, this does not reflect well on the property. This is a result that hotels try to avoid at all costs. So, tell the concierge what kind of diners you are and go for it. It is polite to tip for this service, although many people never do. Pity. They can be very helpful.
Obviously there are other ways to get ideas for where to dine when on holiday. Sometimes you follow the advice of a friend who has been there before. We do find, however, that not all our friends share our tastes and dining esthetic. We know which ones whose advice we politely accept and promptly ignore, and which ones to follow. In the end, you need to know what you’re looking for on any given day. Some days you just want a pint and a nosh at a pub; other times you want that full-out experience. Whatever you decide on, for better or for worse, just enjoy the experience – or at least laugh about it later.
It’s only rarely that we pick up recipes in our travels. As often as we dine in wonderful places and eat amazing dishes, it’s clear to us that recreating them at home usually leads to disappointment. But there are sometime extenuating circumstances…
We haven’t traveled to Art’s original home in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, for a few years, which we wrote about in a previous blog post, but every so often the nostalgic memories of food from a different life and time overtake us, and we pull out the old fish and brewis recipe to embark on what we lovingly and respectfully call “Newfie Night” for a few dear friends.
But cooking fish and brewis for entertaining can be a challenge – have you ever smelled salt cod when it’s boiling away on the stove? It is truly revolting. So, we had to find a way to (a) reduce the cooking smell, and (b) involve the guests in the preparation of the meal.
Traditional Newfoundland fish and brewis represents a culinary tradition that is based more on practicality than intention – but the practical obstacles to acquisition of ingredients seems to have sparked incredible creativity on the part of cooks all over ‘the Rock’ throughout its history. For many years, the availability of fresh ingredients throughout the long, cold winters resulted in a plethora of salted cod and items like hard bread which were both practically indestructible – and no refrigeration needed. So, cooks prepared a dish that used this hard bread and boiled salt cod with a dressing of pure pork fat and scrunchions – which are without any doubt the tastiest part of any dish to which they are added. Scrunchions, for those of you who have not had the pleasure, are small pieces of pure pork fat fried to a delightful crispiness. The taste is unadulterated joy – but be sure to have your cholesterol checked!
During our last Newfie Night for friends, we decided to document the method we use. It’s a tweaked version of authentic fish and brewis. Tweaks include using boned salt cod (to avoid having to remove bones and the possibility of missing one), adding oregano for flavor, and frying it up in the fat rather than pouring it over to improve both the color (visual presentation) and the texture (a bit of crispiness).
It is surprisingly delicious – and guests even asked for seconds! Here’s the video…