How to Eat like a Local

Incurable Wanderlust Podcast - Season 1, Episode 4

Eating while travelling is super important and part of the entire experience. In this episode I provide red flags to look out for and tips on how to find a local, authentic restaurant and not something super touristy.

Click here to read Ways to Act Like a Local.


Hey everyone, this is Emily from The Female Abroad and you are listening to the Incurable Wanderlust podcast which offers tips, tricks and trips to help make you a more confident and knowledgeable traveler. Here we provide and discuss firsthand knowledge from our trips to make sure your trip planning is easier. Be sure to follow so you can find this podcast when you really need it and visit for podcasts transcripts, our social media links, and more information that can help you with all your travel planning.

Welcome back! So I decided to break this week's episode into two separate parts as the topics are so very different. This episode is for how to find a local restaurant and the other is how to tell if a city has more than one airport and which one you should use.

When I'm traveling, I try my best to stay away from larger chains or well known brand names, as I like to try the local food and specialties. Whether it's eating bugs at a farmers market in a random parking lot somewhere in Cambodia, or using Eastern Europe's version of Groupon at a local restaurant rather than Hooters in the Czech Republic, or any other numerous example I could give; I always seem to hunt out the more authentic or local flavors. So when someone reached out to me on Facebook and asked if I could provide hints on how to find the local or authentic restaurant. I thought it was a great topic for a podcast episode!

Well, most of us I'm sure imagine being able to arrive at a destination, then just ask some locals where they would eat. This is not always easy due to things like the language barrier but even if there are no issues, I bet that if you asked 50 Different people you'd probably end up with 45 different options. So how do you decide? Well, let's start with some obvious red flags.

One, if there is a tourist area where most people stay or has the main attractions, then you're usually going to find “expensive tourist food” as I like to call it. These are restaurants that basically sell simple food at a high price due to convenience. If you have to wait in line and skip breakfast just to make sure you could be somewhere on time or maybe you just finished an excursion or activity and are starving - you are the type of person that these restaurants cater to.

Two, If you are in locations like Europe or the Caribbean and you find a restaurant who advertises their prices in both their currency as well as a second currency that they accept, just keep walking. These restaurants are usually found in the touristy areas and actually feature higher prices than if you to walk another couple blocks outside of the area to a restaurant that just charges in the local currency. Since they are more geared towards tourists, you will usually find basic items that will cater to the general type of tourists that visits the area.

Three, if the name of the restaurant is a word that is not used in the native tongue, for example, you're in Chile and you come across a restaurant called “Bon Voyage”. Unless you are looking for French food, just keep walking.

Four, you are in Europe and there are some pretty Cafe tables on a well manicured Street. Well this might not be a red flag necessarily it is indicative of something else - additional charges. Europe has a habit of charging tourists extra fees if you decide to sit at a table that is “in a prime location”, like in the window or just outside. These extra fees usually are:

- a fee for it being in a prime location

- a cutlery fee

- if they bring you bread before the meal whether you ask for it or not, they'll charge you for the bread.

Then there could also be a credit card fee mandatory gratuity, a laundry fee for washing the tablecloth, a tourist tax and a few other creative ones that are usually listed in the native language that you do not understand and then all of a sudden your server does not speak English so they can't tell you what they are.

I've also ran into the problem quite often of when you ask if they take your credit card they say yes, you sit down but when the bill comes all of a sudden they don't take your credit card. Oh, they're so sorry because they misunderstood you and they don't know why that sticker in the window shows that they take a variety of credit cards. However, there happens to be an ATM that you can use, which also has another fee.

Those are the main flags that I usually watch out for but now when it comes to discovering where are the best local or authentic restaurants to eat at I highly recommend the following tips.

Google or TripAdvisor. The internet is wonderful place so doing research these days to hunt out the best places to go, open hours and days, as well as reviews; it's very helpful. If you have social media, you can even look for hashtags related to the area and see what photos people have posted, where they ate, and you can always message them to inquire about something when it comes to anything.

When it comes to anything on the internet you do have to becareful as to which sites you are using because just like the guidebooks, some will feature restaurants if they pay a small fee. So while that does not mean that they're not authentic or local, it just means that they're listed there because they have the advertising budget to make it happen.

Bit of a side note as well, if you receive a free map while in location that shows restaurants and activities; the cost of these maps is covered by the businesses featured. Each of them will pay a small fee just to be listed.

That being said, do not trust everything you read online either because for example, Betty may say that Disney World has the best Beignets she's ever had in her life but it turns out she's never even been to New Orleans. Also sites like TripAdvisor feature reviews that are done by tourists and not locals normally. For example, I was super confused about how high a hill was when I was traveling to Panama, as I wanted to know if it was walkable or not. I asked my question on TripAdvisor and had multiple people tell me that there was no hill, I was crazy or that my Airbnb host was giving me the wrong information. When I got to the Airbnb, there indeed was a hill and luckily it turned out to be walkable. Same thing with restaurants. If you just got back from swimming all afternoon and go for a pizza at the closest restaurant you could find, you may think it's the best pizza you've ever had and you can't believe that Tonga was known for their pizza after all, but the locals have no idea how that restaurant is still open because it's not good - you were just super hungry.

You also have the other side of the coin too though, where tourists rated a place really low because of things like “slow service”, “didn't have forks”, “the meal was bland”. If you're in Cuba, for example, meals at restaurants are a luxury, it's like an event if you go so you're expected to spend two to three hours enjoying the food, slowly. They also are not very good at seasoning their food because everything is rationed so for a lot of people they would rather spend their money or allotment on something more important like a better cut of meat.

When it comes to time, if you go to most places in the Caribbean, you'll actually learn of “island time”, which means things will happen when they happen. If you go to a country where forks are not widely used, then of course a fork won't be provided. So sometimes you have to take a low star review with a grain of salt. I also cannot count the number of times that I've read a one star review that says things like “oh, I've never eaten here” or “it was the best meal I've ever had”. So do your research and look for things like “tastes like my mom's or aunt or grandmother used to make”, “I've eaten that X number of restaurants in town” or “I've had this dish at X number of places and this is by far the best” or “this place is busy on X day so come on Y day instead?”

Also do a quick Google search to see what the local dishes are. I've known people to take hot sauce on trips with them because they didn't know the country that they're visiting has very poor seasoning or bland food. Instead of complaining or giving a low rating they're just prepared to add a bit of their own twist to make it edible for them.

Another thing you could do is take a food tour. Pretty much everywhere you go you'll be able to find a food tour that is done by a local these are great if you want to get your feet wet, get a lay of the land, and also know what is worth eating or trying in the area. I do these a lot and I find that it's a great way to meet people while you're traveling, getting your bearings, and not only learn about the food, but also customs, and most of the time if I have questions on how to do something like take the bus, the guide is more willing to help or explain or answer my questions.

Depending on where you're going. I would check out companies like strawberry tours, which offers a ton of free tours; all they do is they ask for you to tip the guide at the end. You could also look at Viator which is like the Expedia of excursions and activities and more. I've used both companies in multiple countries and even used to use them quite often when I was a travel agent.

If you'd like to try a more hands on approach then I would give a cooking class to try. Not only will you learn how to make an authentic dish from a local you also get to eat it afterwards. Usually cooking classes will be three courses so not only will you gain a better understanding of the culture and cooking methods, you will also get to know the local ingredients as well as what the dish should taste like (Of course if you follow the recipe perfectly.)

Another great way to try multiple things is instead of taking a food tour if there's a food festival or event, try to align your trip to coincide with it. If you're a foodie or maybe you like wine, beer, cigars, spirits, or any other consumable item and the area you're going to is known for them, they usually will have a festival or event sometime in the year to show off the local vendors. So do your research as it might be worthwhile.

Explore the street food scene. Street food can be amazing and super cheap. It also is usually things that the locals will eat so it is one of the most authentic ways you can eat.

As a rule of thumb, if it looks warm, has sauce on it that looks cold, or there's a ton of flies, then skip it unless you want bubble gut or to live on your bathroom floor for a few days. If it's super hot or cooked from scratch in front of you - and I mean cooked not prepared - then you should be good. If there is a vendor with a long line of locals or a bunch of people seated around eating then that's also a good sign.

However, if you are in a location that is known for having issues with the water, then you might want to skip things like peeled fruit and fresh vegetables as they're most likely prepared using the water and your body will not be used to the microbes in it. If you want fruit make sure that it's not peeled and it has the skin on it for you to remove. Example banana, orange, pineapples are examples of safe fruit. Apples, grapes, peaches are not. If you do want fresh fruit or vegetables then I would hit up the local produce market to grab some at a reasonable price and then prepare them using bottled or boiled water depending on where you are.

Another thing you could do is you could ask hotel staff or bar and restaurant staff. Not only are these people local or at least living in the area, they're usually eating in the area during lunch breaks. Some hotels will have a list of restaurants already done up which may push restaurants that are in sister brands or they get a kickback if they make a reservation on your behalf. So you might want to do a little bit of research first. If you do not have a lot of time to research however or you just want something quick and easy then just go with our recommendations, you can't go wrong.

Another great way to find a local or authentic restaurant is know what the local dishes are and decide on what or which ones you want to try. Then ask the locals where the best place to have that dish is. Make sure that you ask a local because if you ask a tourist they're most likely going to tell you the best place they had it which could be an expensive restaurant, or it might not even be the best one in town. Also learn the word for the local dish in the native language. For example, asking for Ropa Vieja sounds a lot better than saying “old clothes” or trying to describe the dish as Pulled Beef.

If you have data or internet while you're traveling, try using Google Maps because if you go on the map, have your location turned on, and select “restaurants near me” you can go through what is listed in the area and the ratings (if there are any), of course. If you're listening to this and your business owner, this is why it's so important to set up Google listing. It's free as long as you have a physical location so go and set it up if you've not done so already.

If a restaurant or street vendor makes only a couple of items or has a small menu based on the same ingredients, then they are going to be a lot better of an option and a place you want to head to instead of somewhere with a giant menu, full of options for everybody.

When I was in Bangkok, I ate out a hole in the wall street vendor that was run by a mother and her son that just made chicken or pork soup with their homemade noodles. I also ate at another place that was recommended to me by a tour guide as they were known for their crispy pork belly and the only other thing that I served were noodle dishes that use their homemade noodles. Both were amazing. I did some research when I got back home and it turned out that both had been in multiple newspapers and the one that made crispy pork was also in Lonely Planet so you really do not know what you will come across when you go out for walking. But the smaller the menu, the better the meal.

Here are also a couple more rules of thumb.

Go to a place that are busy but busy because of locals not tourists. Busy would be a place where there is a line or almost all the tables are full, of course this could vary based on the time of day. So while you are out exploring, just make mental notes as you come across these busy restaurants that seem popular so you can try them out later.

Don't be afraid to use a translation program or guidebook and pointing. I know very basic Spanish, enough to get me around. One time I stopped to order to medium green tea latte at a coffee shop. Then the barista asked me about five different questions, I had no clue what she was saying and I just replied yes or no randomly. In the end I don't even know if I got a green tea latte but it ended up being one of the best drinks that I had the entire trip.

So sometimes if you're really confused, you can guess and hope for the best because either way it'll end up being an experience!

If you cannot figure out how to order food or pay then watch some locals do it. In the Netherlands they have these 24 hour, I don't know what you would call them, vending machines for sandwiches let's say. It's like a small shop with a variety of food in their own little cubby that you insert moneyfor the one you want, the door opens, and you take your food. I had no idea what this place was when I came across it so I just watched a while as a few people came in, grabbed what they wanted, and then they left. However, after seeing the sandwiches, I decided that I would go to an actual restaurant, but at least I knew how to use the machine if I needed to in the future.

Now as we come to the end of this topic, are there any tips that you would add? Is there anything that you would like me to go more in depth on? Is there a topic that you would like covered? Then just let me know! If you're listening on Spotify, there is a questionnaire just below the episodes description that you can leave a comment or head on over to and just shoot us an email from there.

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