Finding that great restaurant: A discerning approach to great dining experiences

The Cliff's spectacular ambience as the sun goes down along the Platinum Coast of Barbados
The Cliff’s spectacular ambience as the sun goes down along the Platinum Coast of Barbados

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.

Art enjoys a glass of wine at Scarlett's.  We even bought T-shirts!
Art enjoys a glass of wine at Scarlett’s. We even bought T-shirts!

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…[1] It was worth it!

Hmm...the service pledge at The Tides.
Hmm…the service pledge at The Tides.

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…

Beautiful water-side, cooly contemporary Cin-Cin.
Beautiful water-side, cooly contemporary Cin-Cin.

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.[2])
  • 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.

Enjoying Daphne's.
Enjoying Daphne’s.
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