Eating out is one of the best reasons to travel because food is an inextricable element of culture. It is impossible to understand a city or a country without eating like the locals do. You will gain some insight into the local culture, and you will probably have a broader palette when you get home.
Instead of going to restaurants the guidebooks recommend, you’ll discover that eating at local neighborhood restaurants offers an amazing array of benefits.
It has been my experience that as far as culinary habits go, the worst thing you can do when visiting another country that speaks another language, is to only visit restaurants where everyone speaks English.
If the restaurant’s name is in English, if its menu is in English, if the staff all speak English, and if English isn’t the country’s national tongue, then leave and go to a another restaurant in a residential neighborhood, that usually means a place away from hotels.
There are a few exceptions:
Restaurants that cater to tourists try to eliminate as much of the culture and
“feel” of their own country and culture as possible. Tourist restaurants are set up to make tourists feel “at home,” which usually means bland renditions of meals they think Americans, Canadians, Australians would like. I believe they even teach cooks how to prepare tasteless hamburgers, stale side salads, and rubbery chicken fingers to resemble what they think their foreign guests must eat back home. There’s no reason to indulge in culinary depravity when there are so many better and cheaper restaurant options available to you on the road abroad.
In fact, instead of seeking restaurants going out of their way to make you feel like you’re back home, you should focus on locating and visiting restaurants where you can delve into the local culture. This is why the local neighborhood restaurant is almost always a far better, and less-expensive, experience.
In general, I have found that with almost without exception, neighborhood restaurants serve meals that are so much tastier and so much cheaper than in the sort of foreign restaurants serving “French fries.” But more importantly, eating regularly in community restaurants is one of the best ways you can expand your cultural comfort zone, and improve your social skills while travelling.
The 1958 book, The Ugly American, portrayed us Americans as innately arrogant, insulting, and disrespectful of local culture. The book later became a popular film starring Marlon Brando. I think Americans need to be aware of this, that it is a common perception in Europe, and it is therefore especially important to be careful of our behavior abroad.
The psychology of being in an environment of another language is interesting. When you go to a restaurant where they don’t speak English, you are more likely to act in a polite manner. Pushing the cultural envelope, you may feel somewhat self-conscious, but this is a good thing. It will make you aware of your surroundings, other people at the restaurant, both the serving staff and the patrons, and more importantly- your personal conduct.
Most of us go on autopilot when we eat at a restaurant and we are slightly self-consciousness. This affords us the opportunity to become aware of unconscious habits and interactions that are typically American. There is an unfortunate tendency for Americans to be somewhat more inconsiderate and even rude when they dine out. A touch of self-consciousness, self-awareness, can be an effective antidote to unconscious habit tendencies.
This burst of self-consciousness and new-found reflection is much stronger when you eat in a non-English speaking restaurant than when you, say, shop at a non-English speaking store. Why is that? Because at a store you can sort of do your own thing. You can just walk around and shove whatever you plan to buy into a basket and then stumble your way through the paying process and be done. At a restaurant, you need to actually interact with the establishment’s staff and make sure you aren’t a bother to its patrons. In short- dining out is much more of a social experience than shopping, forcing you to notice things about your behavior you’d normally not notice.
For this reason I recommend eating at an intimidating restaurant at least once a day, starting the first day you arrive at any new location.
After all, eating out will not only make you a much more aware and considerate person, it will also massively expand your comfort zone, specifically those corners of associated with making a fool out of yourself and with not knowing exactly what you’re doing, both of which are essential elements of any successful travel experience.
If you’re going to get the most out of your travels you need to develop a comfort or accommodation with occasionally feeling uncomfortable. This is especially so when going to places where you may think you “don’t belong.” There’s no faster way to develop this resilience than by repeatedly tossing yourself into the experience of intimate dining somewhere catering to locals.
Even if you speak the language of the country you visit, eating at local restaurants will help to expand your comfort zone and increase your social awareness faster than just about any other day-to-day activity. When it comes down to it, the intimacy of the experience and the sense of being “out of place” is more important than simply avoiding English. And eating as the locals do is a great way to ensure a heaping serving of both.