Monday, 14 April 2008
They sit there silently looking out onto Leicester Square. He wears a plaid shirt tucked into beige chinos. She’s dressed in a black slogan-bearing T-shirt, her curly hair falling over her slumping shoulders. They both look miserable. In a neighbouring booth a mother and father from Corpus Christi, Texas, try and control their squirming kids as they stand on the red velvet banquettes and peer over towards the next table. It’s empty. Nothing to see here apart from cutlery, placemats and glasses filled with green paper napkins. Enter a moustachioed father clutching a guidebook, his digital camera swinging like a pendulum around his neck making the Big Ben on his T-shirt look like a large grandfather clock. Apparently “He Loves London”, but for how much longer is questionable. He beckons his family inside and they wait to be seated by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. In broken English he asks the Polish waitress for a table and in so doing ensures his family will leave London maintaining their belief that food in the UK is rubbish. This is the West End, home of glamour, movie premieres, and gigantic energy consuming Coca-Cola signage and sadly, like so many other visitors to this great city, they’ve gone and “done an Angus.”
To my mind, “doing an Angus” is a term that doesn’t just apply to an ill-informed trip to the dodgy Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain in London, it covers any badly researched restaurant hunt that ends up in a tourist trap, anywhere in the world. We’ve all “done an Angus” or “gone Garfunkling” at some point in our lives but thankfully in this age of virtual reviews and with websites like Tripadvisor, Egullet and londoneating.com, we are better equipped to avoid the paths that others have trodden and find authentic local food that hasn’t been portrayed with sunbleached photos at the entrance to the restaurant. No longer do we have to amble aimlessly around unfamiliar streets wondering who does the best paella or pad thai. We can continue on our path past hawkers calling us in for “best souvlaki for beautiful lady” safe in the knowledge that just around the corner is a lovely taverna, frequented by locals offering great food at non-rip off prices. Knowledge is power but ignorance can be upsetting, to our stomachs but also to the enjoyment of our trips abroad because to gastro-tourists, every meal is an opportunity to try something new, inspiring and hopefully memorable (for good reasons).
Sometimes it's impossible to research every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for 14 days is a lot of eating. I guess that's why we once ended up in a restaurant in Beijing that served "Terrified Fish Heads". I'm still not quite sure what terrified them but I was sufficiently frightened not to order them. What are your worst restaurant experiences abroad?
During the past week travelling through Andalucia, our hit rate was a fairly poor 50%. That’s 50% good meals to 50% bad. Thankfully the good was very good, ranging from the ethereal modernist cooking at the Michelin-starred Tragabuches in Ronda to the unpretentious local Freiduria café Flores in Cadiz which at lunchtime was crammed with local Gaditans snacking on fried seafood, pictured above. Tapas at El Gallo Azul in Jerez was also a cut above what you’d find in the UK. Our first taste of top notch Spanish cuisine was certainly inspiring enough for us to want to explore more, and a trip to the culinary mecca of San Sebastian is now close to the top of our "places to stuff ourselves" list.