There are certain cities that when mentioned, at least in terms of their culinary renown, inevitably elicit the same line from someone in the conversation: “You can never get a bad meal in X.” The factor for X often is San Francisco, New Orleans, New York City or Paris.
I’ve had lousy meals in each of those cities. Recently, I had two bad meals on the same day in Paris, including a remarkably bad onion soup. How does a Parisian restaurant muck up onion soup, an item that is so indelibly linked to France that just about everyone else in the world refers to it as French onion soup?
Well, you start with a broth that has the appearance of dishwater. Then you plop that cloudy liquid down in front of a guest along with a bowl of hard croutons, the type you might put on a Caesar salad, and some grated cheese. These components were meant to be assembled by the diner rather than in the kitchen where the cheese could melt under a broiler. I hope I’ve made it sound dreadful, because it was.
Almost as bad as the croque madame that was served at that same lunch. This is the omnipresent sandwich in Paris cafes that is sort of like an inside-out ham and cheese sandwich. The ham is between the slices but the grated cheese coats the outside. When served like that it is called a croque monsieur; put a fried egg on top and it’s a madame. I don’t know why, and I never feel silly asking for a croque madame. Put a fried egg on top of something and it almost always makes the dish better, as far as I’m concerned.
Not this one. Most cafes typically make their croques ahead of time, ready to be heated when ordered. You’ll see them lined up in display cases all over town. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not heating it through before serving it to a guest — there’s something wrong with that. Even the perfectly fried egg with its gorgeous yellow-orange yolk couldn’t make it better.
That was at a corner bistro/cafe, one of hundreds to be found all over town. All with names, of course, but largely anonymous. Most of the time I don’t know the name of a cafe until I look at my receipt later.
That same evening, I visited a restaurant with a name, that is, it had a reputation and several reviews on various sites that recommended it: Les Mauvais Garcons.
Here the food wasn’t as awful as it was at the lunchtime, mostly it was just lifeless and plain, both in taste and presentation. It was edible, but it wasn’t memorable.
And when you’re on vacation, you don’t want to spend money, time and calories on something that isn’t going to be memorable.
So what do you do?
When I’m traveling to a new city, or even when I’m revisiting an old favorite, I research and study. I look at online sites such as Urbanspoon and TripAdvisor and read the reviews. And I mean really read the reviews. You have to learn how to weed out the ones that were apparently written by family members and friends of the restaurant owner. And you have to discount the ones that give a negative score but don’t give details, or worse, dun the restaurant for something totally out of its control or otherwise not a real negative. (There are many negative reviews for restaurants that wouldn’t, say, replace the veal in a dish with a vegetarian item.)
But obviously, even that can’t assure a perfect meal every time. My recent Paris trip is testament to that.
So when you’re wandering around a new city, or you have a restaurant in mind that you want to visit, go the step further. Scope it out in person, preferably the day before you plan to dine. Get a look at the plates coming out of the kitchen. Look at the expressions of the diners. Ask people exiting if they enjoyed their meal; would they recommend it?
It still won’t guarantee you’re going to have a wonderful dining experience. There are no such guarantees. Not in San Francisco, not in New Orleans, not in New York, as much as New Yorkers would protest that statement. And not even in Paris.