Sometimes little white lies are necessary. I wasn’t really ill, you see. I just couldn’t bear the thought of another group meal.
During the traipse across Southeast Asia, evenings had followed a familiar pattern. Herd mentality, laziness and a desperate desire not to appear rude meant that every evening our group of 14 blindly followed the guide into a restaurant of her choosing. And then, in what was seemingly some kind of calculated torture, proceeded to order the most complicated combination of dishes imaginable.
Every night there’d be an excruciating passive-aggressive polite-off. Those who got their dish first didn’t want to start before everyone else. But those waiting 45 minutes for their bread-free pizza or vegan cheesesteak to arrive insisted the others go ahead and tuck in. The meals dragged on. An entire geological epoch would pass while everyone argued over their exact share of the bill.
Endless faffing isn’t quite so painful when offset by good food. But one of the laws of eating out is that any restaurant actively encouraging large group bookings does so because no one else wants to eat there. Ones that court tour groups, meanwhile, will serve food so bland it may as well apply for a vacancy in Simply Red.
There’s an extensive list of things that should send alarm bells ringing when picking somewhere to eat, including menus with pictures of the food, waiters touting for business outside and proximity to a major train station. Forget about eating anywhere within 300 metres of the platform — those restaurants are aimed solely at the ravenous, ill-informed and desperate after disembarking. They can serve any old muck and still get the passing trade.
Also worth skipping are restaurants where the menu is translated into a seemingly incongruous language. For example, there may be logic to a Spanish restaurant translating into French and English — but start getting worried if it’s also in Russian and Korean. Anything offering entertainment over dinner, especially if it’s ‘folkloric’ or ‘traditional’? Likely a one-way ticket to a night hugging the toilet.
Forget, too, anywhere with a cardboard cut-out of a cartoon chef by the door or a place claiming to specialise in more than one cuisine (treat claims of expertise in both Italian and Mexican with the sort of contempt usually reserved for rat-strewn takeaways doing fish and chips, kebabs, curries, pizzas and fried chicken).
Prominently advertised drinks promotions are a no-no as well — there’s a good reason few places offering three-for-two Jägerbombs grace the hallowed pages of the Michelin guide.
There are a few boasts to be wary of, too. A place describing itself as ‘famous’ almost certainly isn’t, and anywhere stooping to ‘world famous’ must once have been a murder scene. Similarly, ditch any restaurant that brags of how well it did in the council’s recent hygiene inspection — although it is worth driving through Greater Manchester to see the banner proudly proclaiming the first Bangladeshi restaurant on the A6 to be awarded five stars by Stockport Environmental Health.
Dodgiest of all, however, are the award-winners. Or, more specifically, those boasting a single certificate over five years old, given by a minor local rag you’ve never heard of. If you have to go that far back into the past to find praise from such a lowly source, the food is likely to be the sort of stuff that needs to be buried deep underground in a desert bunker.
Armed with this forensic treatise of prejudices, I sneaked out of the hotel once the rest of the group had gone for their nightly mediocrity marathon. And, sooner than I’d hoped, I struck gold. A little Lao place that served a whole chilli fish for a pittance. On the plate, it looked better than anything I’d seen all week, and I started tearing it apart with relish. Within seconds, however, I was grasping for the water, the beer and frankly anything that would make the pain go away. Holy hell, it was like biting into the fiery pits of Hades. And, a third of the way in, the streaming tears became an admission of defeat.
Tail between legs, I slunk back to the hotel, consciously avoiding the restaurant where the group was tucking into its nice, bland chicken. Shortly afterwards, the tumultuous stomach rumblings started. And the little white lie became bleak, gruesome truth.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)