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To Choose, or Not to Choose, a Restaurant by its Food Porn

If I say, Spanish food, what comes to mind? Paella? Grilled fish? Jamon Iberico? These are all wonderful Spanish foods and should be celebrated, but every now and again, you inadvertently stumble across a waterfall of mayonnaise slathered tapas, chewy lomo fit for your labrador or heaps of stale bread that’s hard enough to ward off the most persistent of purse thieves. It can get dangerous on the Spanish tapas front, trust me!

Now I realize that many of you will be screaming bloody murder. “Gabriella, how dare you!! My mother cooks the best Fideua on the planet! And have you tried my aunt’s incredible fish soup?! It’s to die for.” Yes, I’m sure it is, but let’s be honest, your Mom isn’t serving me at million plus restaurants blanketing the spanish mesata. No, instead I’m playing Russian roulette when I walk into many a local bar and ask for their menu of the day. Sometimes, it’s insanely good, and there are many times that I wish I opted for a meal of olives and peanuts.

However, the beautiful times have so far outnumbered the negative. For example one of my most memorable experiences was going north to Costa Brava last year. We spent a lovely weekend with Ryan’s parents at tiny coastal town called Llafranc, where rocky outcrops merge with small sandy alcoves dotted with quiet seaside restaurants. As the sun poured upon us, we licked our fingers coated in grilled sardines that we manually pulled off the bone and into our mouths. Followed by sips of perfectly chilled Rosado, we were in absolute heaven. A hidden little restaurant known only by a few, we felt like culinary explorers as the waves pounded on the shore behind us. It was pure heaven.

This past weekend, with a dear friend in tow, we rented a car in hopes of seeking an equally great experience. We craved peace and quiet so as to hear the gentle, lapping pools of water behind us. We desired tranquility and meditation where we were at one with our perfectly cooked fish. But as we all know, luck is not always on our side.


Landing in the highly touristic town of Malgrat de Mar, we shuffled down t-shirt and knick-knack laden side streets before scratching our heads perplexed where we could possibly find a place worthy of the day. Thinking there must have been some hidden restaurant only known by the locals, we darted into a hotel and kindly asked where such a place would exist.

“I don’t eat here and we don’t suggest restaurants, because none of us live here. Plus, we have a restaurant over there” pointing to a diner style cafe filled with sandy toed tourists eating hamburgers and chicken sandwiches on stale buns.

“Right”, I confessed, “I see that you have a restaurant, but we were looking for something a little more local and authentic.”

Sighing, she rolled her eyes and croaked with a raspy smoker’s voice, “Go down the road and you’ll find Casa Bella. I go there religiously every 15 days, no more, no less. It’s nothing what you’re asking for, but we like it.”

Giving a quick nod of thanks, I walked out the door completely annoyed. How could a hotel not have any suggestions other than their own restaurant?! What kind of horrific racket was this that you service your customers with a blanket answer of, “I don’t know?!”

Resigned to our limited choices, our stomachs growling in rebellious screams, we ambled infront of Casa Bella and harumphed in unison. A mahogany entrance was plastered in sun-faded pictures of their featured dishes. With little patience to continue our search, we accepted defeat and went inside expecting the worst.

Sitting down with 3 beers infront of us, enjoying the small sunny terrace carved out in the back of the restaurant, we opted for menu of the day: a 3 course meal at a discounted price. Relaxing to 80′s pop music, we ordered a series of dishes we felt were relatively safe, and to our surprise, they were damn good. Great? No, but considerably better than we ever imagined.

Spain, despite being called a “foodie country” can serve some pretty atrocious meals. In our experience, Spain is known for its culinary landmines – where food looks and tastes like something meant for lifelong prisoners than hungry tourists. Consequently, our rule of thumb is to avoid restaurants that have a photo library of their menu at the entrance, which has saved us on many occasion. Unfortunately, a generalization is still a generalization, which means that every “rule” can have several exceptions.

Take El Cucuracho, a Galician restaurant in Madrid with a massive 5 foot tall lobster looming outside the front entrance. Any sane human being would run for cover rather than enter the front door. Much like the plethora of restaurants with a fat pig sitting on the roof smiling at you saying “Hey, come on in and eat my brethren”, there is a serious creepy feeling while an animated version of the animal you’re about to eat stares at you from within the restaurant. However, much to Ryan’s surprise, it was one of the best seafood meals he ever encountered: pure Galician fare cooked with love and care.

What does this teach us? Well, maybe that generalizations are ridiculous. Maybe it teaches us that generalizations are valid, but there are exceptions. Or maybe, we should just embrace life and except that you’ll never know what you’ll experience until you walk in the door and give it a try.

Do you have a rule of thumb when traveling as to where you should eat? Assuming that your phone is on the fritz, and the google gods are pinned against you, how do you make a decision when walking down the street in a new location?

Cheers,

Gabriella Opaz

  • Cass Jenis

    Personally, I ask the locals, and if that doesn’t work, I go by smell ;)

  • Laurie

    Hi, Gabriella! Great question and fabulous post! One sure-fire way to get a plethora of ideas is ask La Tienda’s Facebook followers – they generously share incredibly detailed and diverse recommendations of their favorite restaurants across the Iberian Peninsula any time someone asks :)

  • http://www.viniculture.pl/ Maciek Gontarz

    I won’t be original. In a new place, without internet, google and “call-to-friend” option I would  pick only restaurant full of local people, or just people who’s nationality is the same as type of kitchen.