Rules of the Road
By Stett Holbrook
I JUST GOT back from a weeklong vacation visiting friends in Carmel and Santa Barbara. Driving up and down Highway 101 for three hours to get my son to nap—while I nursed an almost-snapped neck that resulted from poor water depth judgment—wasn't exactly my idea of R and R, but the trip did drive home some of the pleasures and perils of tourist-town dining.
The fact is, it's hard to find good food in tourist towns. If your idea of good food is overpriced burgers, breaded shrimp and Italian food that's a half-step above the Olive Garden, then this doesn't apply to you. But if you're a culinary tourist like me, who looks upon a trip out of town as an opportunity to experience what's unique and delicious in a particular city, then you have to dig a little deeper. The thing with tourist towns is they don't have to serve good food. People will eat the stuff anyway and pay handsomely for it. In places like Carmel and Santa Barbara, where visitors come for the weather, the beach, the golf and the shopping, the food often falls short of the scenery. Which leads me to my four dining dictums.
1. The better the view, the worse the food: Generally speaking, a place that touts its stunning ocean vistas or twinkling city-lights views doesn't have to wow you with its food because it knows you came to admire the pretty view. The exception here is breakfast. While you'll pay more for your bacon and eggs than you would at Denny's, breakfast is pretty hard to screw up, and even better while gazing upon the blue Pacific.
2. Avoid restaurants in hotel visitors guides: These restaurants are generally geared for the lowest-common-denominator tastes, and while you'll find fancy restaurants with the prices to match, they generally serve pretty boring, predictable stuff.
3. Eat where the locals eat: You can bet the cooks and servers who work in Carmel's quaint and expensive downtown don't eat there. But they've got to go somewhere on their days off. While waiters will be reluctant to bash their employer, ask them where else they would eat if out for a special occasion. Chances are, it's a place not listed in hotel guides and it's well off the tourist circuit.
4. Go out to eat during off-hours: Of course, some restaurants are popular with tourists and locals alike and live up to the hype, but getting a table and fighting the crowds can put a damper on the experience. To enjoy the place without battling it out with the masses, go for a late lunch or an early dinner. The staff will be calmer and you won't feel like such a tourist.
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