This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
I’m in Rome, I whisper to myself. Hours earlier, I had been sitting on the Spanish Steps drinking a clumsily ordered espresso (I wanted a latte). Now, I’m wearing a black dress with a constellation pattern, ascending the steps to the Michelin-starred restaurant attached to my hotel — my first encounter with such esteemed luxury. The windows overlook the sparkling city with its rusty red domes. I’m totally smitten and I am about to eat what has been officially sanctioned as one of the best meals in the world.
I don’t remember a single taste. Not one bite from that meal. Not even a passing notion of flavor remains. Excitement and adrenaline didn’t overpower my senses. I remember clearly the Champagne and meat sauce over tagliatelle I ate days later, by myself, at the very back of an otherwise empty cafe in Trastevere. It was my first meal alone in Rome and therefore just as significant, though in a different way. I haven’t eaten at a Michelin-starred restaurant since (although that might be because I write for a living and am, therefore, always broke).
Later, I considered the incident a fluke, a strange accident that my meal turned out to be so utterly forgettable. But as a food writer, I have traveled widely in the last three years, and have had a similar experience in each place: in Tokyo, in Hawaii (twice!), in Ireland. I would send my partner half-joking texts from the road, promising that I would someday issue my warning to the world: Never eat at your hotel’s restaurant.
This doesn’t mean that the food in hotel restaurants is universally bad. And it also doesn’t mean that if you eat at your hotel restaurant you’re a sucker, or you don’t understand food. Hotel restaurants are convenient. Most often the food is satisfying. You should, of course, feel empowered to eat wherever you want — after all it’s your vacation.
I would, however, implore you to step outside the comforting doors of your hotel or resort for your meals. Hotel restaurants exist to mollify their guests, to coddle their senses with the familiar, to keep them pleasantly happy. There’s nothing wrong with that mission (I’ve been on many trips where all I really craved was a chicken sandwich and a Coke) except that it isn’t very exciting and it lacks courage. There’s no risk involved in having dinner at your hotel restaurant. Maybe that’s the appeal. But I would argue that eating in a new place, whether you’re in Japan or Ohio, should be part of the adventure, or at least an opportunity to understand the place you’re visiting on its own terms.
Listen, I write about food for a living, so my taste is perhaps a little more flexible than the average person’s. I’m not saying that to make the most out of your vacation you must seek out the nearest street vendor and stuff your face with raw squid. But the thing about food is that it is a bridge between worlds, the tissue that connects people with whom we have nothing else in common. Trying food you don’t recognize is a process of life-changing discovery that I cannot recommend enough, even if you don’t like what you’re tasting.
Once you take the leap, your view of the world changes. It becomes clearer and more compassionate. If you stay inside your hotel eating food tailored to lull you into security, food that you will immediately forget the second you get up from your table, then you never cross that bridge. You don’t even approach it.
Walk through the double doors. Find a restaurant — any will do. The food might be bad, sometimes it is. But it will be memorable.