We’re not sure about everyone else, but we are sure about ourselves when it comes to travel: we are very particular about the experiences that we have, and we are suspicious of those who take the view that you can’t have an ‘authentic’ travel experience unless you somehow suffer. What nonsense!
What does it mean to be authentic anyway? Well, the dictionaries suggest that it has to do with being real, genuine, or not fake. When it comes to travel experiences, what makes something authentic (and why do travelers these days care, anyway?)? The latest craze for visiting slums in third-world countries is one of the more puzzling approaches for authentic experiences that we’ve seen.
Some travel writers seem to think that staying at a ‘quaint’ property is more authentic than staying at a ‘grand’ property, but who is to say that quaint is any more authentic (read: morally superior), than ‘grand’? And what about dining? Is it more authentic to eat street food in India or to dine at a high-quality Indian restaurant? Perhaps the risk of dysentery is what makes a dining experience authentic? Well, we think that’s just travel snobbery. Take a recent experience we had in New England.
As we love to do in the fall, we took a few days earlier this month to take in the fall colors in Maine and New Hampshire. Having not set foot in Bar Harbor, Maine in decades, we decided that it would be a good place to spend two days exploring the countryside and Acadia National Park (we suppose that a national park is authentic?) As we usually do, we sought out the fine dining experience in the village and found ourselves at a little spot called rather unexpectedly, Havana. What in the world were you doing in a restaurant named for the capital of Cuba in the middle of the Atlantic seaside in Maine? you might ask. Surely that couldn’t be an authentic Maine experience. Oh, but it was.
You see, that restaurant is owned and operated by a local restaurateur with a flair for the sophisticated. With an extensive travel background and a true respect for dining (not eating as we’ve discussed before), Havana’s proprietor with whom we chatted for a while during and after our dinner, has for the past 15 years been committed to “…serving local and organic meats, produce and seafood. [They] consistently search out New England farmers and fisherfolk to purchase products that are not only great tasting, but great for the environment and local economy as well…”[from their web site]. In addition to this, they have their own urban garden on a reclaimed urban plot. What’s more, this commitment to the local and the sustainable hasn’t gotten in the way of serving outstanding food accompanied by a wonderful, thoughtfully selected wine list.
An authentic Maine experience? Of course. Eating freshly steamed lobster at a newspaper-covered picnic table might constitute what most travel snobs would define as authenticity, but there’s more to being authentic than the cheaper, lower-level experiences.
There is nothing inauthentic about being comfortable and happy while travelling. It’s authentically wonderful to have the privilege of making a choice. Be discerning about your own experiences and never be defensive about your enjoyment of your travel experiences.
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!
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 would be hard to imagine traveling without considering the pleasures of dining on the road. For us, travel means time away from our own kitchen and dining room, and invites us to sample more than just the sights and the sounds – we can taste our travels as well. And when you seek information about dining while away, you usually think about finding restaurant reviews in the cities and countryside where you‘ll be traveling. We’ve had many memorable experiences in wonderful city restaurants as well as some in more off-the-beaten track locales, but one of the most memorable dining experiences we had recently was on board a cruise ship.
As difficult as it may be for some of the more jaded among us to comprehend, cruise ships today are truly entering the competition for dining experiences. Of course we’re not talking about the main dining room where hordes of wait staff flutter about taking hundreds of orders and serving mountains of meals all within an hour and a half time frame – although that experience does have its merits. We’re talking about the continuing move in the cruise industry toward offering more and more inventive ways to entice you away from that main dining room for an experience that you might not be able to have anywhere else. As we’ve discussed previously, the notion of specialty dining spaces on board cruise ships is not without its challenges, but it is also not without its rewards.
Earlier this year we traveled from Puerto Rico through Bermuda and landed in New York aboard the Celebrity Summit. While on board, we had dinner in several of their specialty restaurants, but the one that rewarded us with the most original experience was Qsine.
From the moment we walked into the space we felt a bit like Alice Through the Looking Glass. Surrounded by orange, white and black, we sat beneath a light fixture composed of multiple table lamps – all hung upside down. Then the server brought the menu.
What fun! An iPad menu. This wasn’t the first time we’d ever been handed an iPad at a restaurant (it seems to be a bit of a fad for those that can afford it), but it was the first time that the menu had such interactive capabilities. We were charmed from the start.
A bit like a tasting menu, the selections sounded interesting and different – just what you want when dining is more than simply eating, as it is for us. Then we had a bit of fun with the mixed drinks menu. The iPad allowed us to ‘mix’ the drinks by moving the offered ingredients into the glass on the screen, finishing with ice and then shaking! A great way to get to know your drinks!
After a very entertaining run-down of the menu by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable wait staff you could encounter anywhere (they seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us), we chose a variety of their items all designed for sharing. Then the parade began.
Chefs will always tell you that the presentation is as important as the dish itself, and it is true that we experience our food not only through taste and smell, but also through our visual sense. The staff at Qsine seems to have this down to a true art. We’ll leave some of the presentation as a mystery so that you too might experience this some time, but for those of you who might not, we‘ll highlight one particular presentation.
Have you ever had a dish served to you vertically rather than horizontally? Didn’t think so – neither had we until we dined at Qsine.
When the waiter brought the course to the table, he placed something that resembled Patty’s Victorian dollhouse in between us on the table – but with the front wall missing. In each little cubby-hole resided a different tasting dish from the part of the world we’d chosen for that particular course. What fun it was to look, consider and sample the food.
Oh, and about the food? It was one of the most satisfying dining experiences we’ve ever had. It occurred to us that if Celebrity wanted to franchise this concept on land, hip Torontonians and maybe even New Yorkers would flock to just such a spot. Maybe we’ll invest!