You’re walking down the main street of a popular travel destination when your stomach starts to grumble. It’s time for dinner and you’re tempted to take a seat at the large prominently located restaurant in the heart of the tourist quarter.
You’ve heard all the warnings. “Don’t go to touristy restaurants! Go off the beaten track! Find something more authentic!” However, is a restaurant that caters to tourists really that bad? What are the pros and cons to stopping for a meal or a few drinks in a place like this?
Let’s take an honest look into whether or not you should avoid touristy restaurants completely when you travel – or whether they have some advantages.
Pros Of Touristy Restaurants
One of the big advantages, of course, is the location. This type of restaurant is often found in a centrally located, popular tourist area.
It’s wonderfully convenient and very close to the important sightseeing spots. You don’t have to get lost down a back alley to find it – you just wander right in. If you want to grab a quick lunch while sightseeing without going too far out of your way, this can be a huge advantage.
The Staff Probably Speak English
Another advantage is that, no matter what country you are in, the staff in the busy, popular restaurant that caters to tourists are more likely to speak English than those in the hidden gem you find on an obscure street in the outskirts.
You’re in a foreign country, so it should always be considered a bonus when someone speaks English to you – not an expectation. Also, I know that many travelers love learning the local language and enjoy any opportunity to practice it.
However, you might find it a relief to be able to order a meal without having to resort to charades and pointing to things on the menu. You may simply want to be able to grab lunch – without the added challenge of a foreign language.
The Menu is Easy to Understand
Speaking of pointing to things on the menu, in the popular tourist restaurant you’ll likely find the menu much easier to understand. After all, it’s been designed for visitors like you who aren’t too familiar with the local cuisine.
It might have photographs of the food to help you identify what you are ordering, as well as descriptions in English of the ingredients. This can be a lifesaver when you first arrive in a country and you have no idea what the local dishes are. You can order them a few times from restaurants with an easy to understand menu, then you’ll recognize them later when you are dining at other restaurants that don’t have menu translations.
It’s Probably Easier for Special Diets
If you need to be able to explain to your server that you are a vegetarian or you are allergic to gluten, you’ll likely have more luck in a restaurant that caters to tourists. It’s really hard to discuss dietary restrictions when you don’t share a common language.
That said, this issue can be remedied by carrying a card with you that explains your dietary needs in the language of the country you are visiting. Jodi from Legal Nomads has some great gluten free cards in several languages including German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Greek, French and Japanese. Dietary Cards also offers cards for several different food restrictions and allergies.
It Has the Typical “Must-Try” Dishes
Another thing about touristy restaurants is that they know you’ll be looking to check certain dishes off your culinary bucket-list during your visit.
Khinkali (meat dumplings) or khachapuri (cheese bread) while you are in Georgia.
Pad Thai or Tom Yum Goong while you are in Thailand.
Ceviche or alpaca meat (or even guinea pig) while you are in Peru.
Haggis while in Scotland.
You can be sure that the tourist-focused restaurant will have these iconic dishes on the menu in their most classic, typical form.
Now, it might not be the best version of this dish and it might be toned down your foreign palate – however it’s a good opportunity to try that dish for the first time.
Cons of Touristy Restaurants
Now, let’s look at some of the downsides of eating in these types of touristy restaurants.
They Are Usually More Expensive
The restaurant that caters to tourists will pretty much always have higher prices than the ones that are frequented by locals – that’s just a fact. This is especially true in a country where the local wages are quite low. If you can seek out a restaurant where the locals eat, you’ll get a lot better value for money.
They Can Get Away With Being Terrible
Normally, a restaurant succeeds or fails based on its quality.
A restaurant opens up in a non-touristic part of town. The clientele are mostly locals.
The restaurant serves up awful food and has terrible service. Those few patrons who were willing to give it a chance in the beginning are disappointed and they don’t come back. They voice their bad experience to their friends and in online reviews, so other people don’t come. After a few months, the restaurant is struggling to bring in customers – and it goes out of business.
This is the way things work in a normal business – it’s survival of the fittest.
However, what happens when a terrible restaurant is placed in an ideal spot right in the heart of the tourist district?
It stays open much longer than it normally would, because it is kept alive by a steady flow of walk-ins simply due to its location.
The restaurant can get away with being bad, because it doesn’t rely on repeat business. It can serve tourists all day long. Even if each patron leaves disappointed, it doesn’t matter because more will keep walking through the door.
This is one of the biggest issues with touristy restaurants in popular locations and it’s why reading reviews on Yelp and Tripadvisor is so important.
It’s a Bit Unadventurous
I totally understand why you’d want to eat at the most obvious place on the tourist strip. It’s just so damn convenient.
But if you do it all the time, I really do think you miss out on some of the adventure of travel.
The common travel advice is to venture off the beaten path – not just because it’s cheaper and more authentic, but also because it’s fun!
Lee and I were in the seaside town of Quarteira in the Algarve, Portugal. We ate a few meals at the popular tourist restaurants along the beach. They were fine – easy to understand menus, typical dishes, English speaking servers, etc.
But one evening we decided to start wandering into the backstreets of the village. Several winding cobblestone lanes later, we found a small family owned restaurant on a quiet street.
The server spoke no English and the only Portuguese we knew at that point was “cerveja” (beer) and “piri piri frango” (barbequed chicken with spicy sauce). So that’s what we got – and LOTS of it.
Our smiling hosts filled the table with spicy, crispy roasted chicken, french fries, salads with juicy tomatoes and much more. We feasted, licking sticky piri piri sauce off our fingers and guzzling cold bottles of Sagres and Super Bock.
It was the best meal of our Portugal trip by far – and the cheapest. Plus, getting lost in the backstreets and discovering something great is one of my favourite memories of Portugal.
You’re Not Likely to Be Supporting a Local Family
Another disadvantage of tourist restaurants is that they are more likely to be run by a large chain rather than a local owner. Of course, this isn’t always the case – but it’s the general trend.
At smaller, locally owned restaurants you’ll probably be putting your tourist dollars directly towards a family rather than a corporation. That ensures that the money you spend stays within the economy, rather than leaving it.
What do you think?
What do you think about tourist restaurants vs eateries that are more “off-the-beaten-path”. Do you avoid them when you travel, or not? Why? Let us know in the comments.