The greatest meals have a sense of place, a vicegeral connection to the land, people, and time. Rather than chasing down the chance to spend hundreds of dollars on the chance to Instagram a bold name chef’s garnish game, follow these expert tips for fantastic, affordable meals no matter where you travel.
Be Flexible on Meal Times
A trip to NYC for me isn’t complete without a stop at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. However, the perennially popular restaurant from the superstar chef is always packed. Plus, like good NYC real estate, it’s tiny. The trick is to pop in for a late lunch around 1:30/2pm and you can slide right in.
Dining in off hours is easier when traveling as your rhythms are already all screwed up, and breakfast cravings hit as the people around you are heading out to happy hour. Being flexible on the when can free up the where. This strategy works best for when you’re dying to try the food of a bold name chef or an otherwise popular restaurant.
Make Lunch the Main Meal
Especially when traveling in America, lunch is often the more reasonably sized, lower priced meal, but with the same caliber of food. A dinner tasting menu at Le Bernadin is $160 at night, but a slightly-more-attainable $90 during lunch. Luxuriate in a long mid-day meal and leave later day eating to a late night happy hour or streetside snack.
Eat at the bar
Reservations might be long gone, but lurking at the bar can snag a sweet seat that often serves the exact same menu as the dining room, plus more casual, or sometimes reduced prices. Plus, a bartender is a great friend to make in any city. These folks spend their entire work shift speaking with people and know the best places to grab a cocktail or late night bite in town.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions (or mime if there’s a language barrier.) I got a world-class education in Mezcal from a tiny bar off of a side street in Mexico City from a bartender who was passionate about her profession.
Find the Passion Projects
Little known fact: most fine dining restaurants don’t make much money. The sustainable business option for many big-name chefs is to open a more casual restaurant that can feed a ton of people at a quicker pace with more casual service. Find these spots for the same attention to quality and detail with food and atmosphere that won’t leave you wondering when you last dry cleaned that good suit.
Tacos, burgers, sandwiches, even gourmet hot dogs can be even better than the belabored tasting menus and hard-to-manage expectations. There is nothing worse than blowing your whole dining out budget on one mediocre meal. These spots offer the same caliber of cuisine with a more casual/vacation-ready vibe.
Take to the Streets
Street food can be where you get the real flavor of a city. Follow your nose and look for a steady business. This is especially true in big cities. There is nothing like the satisfaction of digging into a gooey, flavor-dense mess in Mexico City eating from a plastic plate next to a line of locals on their lunch break.
Save yourself the headache and time of pouring over local ranking websites for the “best” food truck, hot dog or shawarma stand. Be open to embracing the moment. Heavy foot traffic is a way better indicator of a great meal than a Yelp rating.
Often times, getting to your next destination can be the cheapest part of a trip. It can be easy to rack up a huge restaurant bill while you are traveling. Using these tips can help you save on your dining experiences without sacrificing the quality or experience.
Want to learn more of our best cheap travel tips and tricks? Watch our Thrifty Traveler University online lessons.