Adapting to local dining customs

One of my favorite bits of travel is the different dining habits/customs of our destination. When in Spain, dinner is nice and late, following an early round of tapas. Italy has a similar evening/night split for snacks and dining. In Asia, dining on the roadside was very common, either a grab-and-go snack from a vendor or sitting at tiny plastic tables in tiny plastic chairs on the sidewalk in Saigon, slurping up pho while trying not to break anything. I love these experiences, partly for the food and partly because we get to see the culture of those places not just from the displays in a museum.

So I was particularly saddened yesterday walking to the subway on my way home from work. It was about 7:30pm and I passed a family walking cross-town. They were headed east from the Times Square area, seemingly back towards their hotel. Laden with the requisite shopping bags I noticed one in the mix that was rather disappointing – leftovers from The Olive Garden. So at 7:30 they were done with dinner, and it was an Olive Garden dinner.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate the Olive Garden. I like the salad and bread sticks (or I did last time I had them, which was probably 8 years ago), and I’m sure that there are places where it is the best option for “Italian” food that is available. But it pains me to see folks choosing that over one of the dozens of local places that are available in NYC that provide a better meal and a much more realistic view of dining in the city.

While in Paris we had a fabulous dinner at a great little restaurant. My wife claims that it is the best meal she’s ever had, and she’s probably right. But our 8:30pm seating had us in with all the other Americans, though we were at least on the later side of that group. Only as we finished up dining did we see some locals start to trickle in around 10pm. The meal was delicious, but I cannot help but think we got shorted a bit on the experience because of the timing. And I think that this family drew the same short straw with their dinner last night, too.

Maybe it is just because I’m obsessed with food, but I think that making the leap to the local dining culture is as important as anything else you do on a trip. And in New York that means no Olive Garden. Oh, and no licking your fingers in India. That’s a good way to end up on the couch/in the bathroom for two days until the Cipro kicks in, but that’s a whole different story…

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.