Normally I come to you with nutritionally strict recipes, guidelines and information that corresponds with my traditional, whole food and home-made eating paradigm. Today I want to confess to you that I LOVE to eat out and I LOVE to indulge in foods that aren’t perfectly good for me. (After all, every traditional culture has a time of “festival” or indulgence if it is available.) My family will confer that what I remember most about any trip we go on is what and where we ate! My husband and I traveled to Europe and I literally planned the entire trip around where our meals would be. Local food is directly influenced by the local culture, so to experience a new culture is to experience their food- whether it be a city close by or across the world. I am directed by food and simply love to find those local restaurant gems in every city.
I do think there is a “right” way to eat out, though, so I thought I’d share my personal rules for how to eat out and indulge properly.
Rule #1- Save your money and go to a good, unique, local restaurant. (Do NOT go to a chain restaurant- even a “nice” one.)
In case you didn’t know, most chain restaurants (even the “nice” ones) are pretty much a step up from fast food restaurants. In order to achieve consistency with all their restaurants, food is pre-made (aka- highly processed) and shipped to the restaurants, then assembled by the “chefs”. Yes, there is often actual cooking happening in the kitchen, but the ingredients are probably deplorable. Save up your money for a quality outing to a local restaurant where the chef has put his or her love and passion into each ingredient of each and every dish. There should be depth and intelligence in the flavor and preparation of every dish- even the salads. You should go home thinking, “I have to learn how to make this!”
Also, if the quality of the food isn’t mentioned on the menu, then it probably isn’t great because restaurants want to make sure you know if they’ve gone out of their way to provide outstanding ingredients. For instance, my favorite restaurants will say when beef is grass-fed, fish is wild, or the veggies are organic. It makes me feel like I could be friends with the chef, or at least have a nice conversation about food, which means I’ll probably be coming back. When in doubt, you should be able to ask where the food comes from. If they can’t answer, or don’t want to answer, then I think you have a problem.
Rule #2- Order foods that you can’t make at home.
We don’t eat out very often, not only because it’s a perfect way to blow your budget, but because I don’t like to pay a premium for food that I can easily cook at home (and usually with way better quality ingredients).
My rule of thumb at a restaurant is to find something on the menu that I wouldn’t and/or couldn’t make at home. My weakness is really good authentic Italian food. I almost never order a pasta meal, but my favorite restaurant makes a “Rotelli di Pasta” that is incredible. It’s a baked sheet of homemade pasta rolled with cheese, ham, and peas, then drenched in creamy Vodka tomato sauce and topped with crispy Parmesan cheese. I’ve come close to recreating it at home (with a recipe that is actually in my cookbook, “The Reality Chef’s Complete Guide to REAL FOOD, A Meal Planning Cookbook”), but I can’t quite make it as gooey and delicious as the restaurant does. I also love myself a good French pastry. (Please imagine the swagga in my voice when I say that.) There is nothing like a fresh puff pastry made with 100% butter and flour, layered and rolled to flaky perfection. Well, actually, what would be better is that puff pastry filled with fresh, creamy custard. Okay dark chocolate swirled on top wouldn’t be bad, either. You get the idea! It is a rare occasion that I’ll spend the time creating a true French pastry, so I’ll save up my dough and indulge in theirs instead.
Rule #3- Use Yelp! (Or research your restaurant and tell others about it if it’s a good one.)
Yelp! is one of my favorite apps. Whenever we’re away from home and need to eat out, I get my phone out and find the perfect restaurant. All you have to do is search for restaurants in your area and you get details about different places including the type of food served, cost level, coupons and special offers, and, most importantly, reviews.
A quick browse through the reviews and you can learn if it’s the kind of quality local place you want to visit. It’s especially great if it’s a favorite for locals. Restaurants usually have a website linked on Yelp! so you can check out their own site and menu. I’ve found hidden gems off the beaten path in places like strip malls or basements serving up grass-fed burgers that use only organic ingredients or (my favorite indulgence) organic cupcakes that have appeared on Food Network’s Cupcake Wars show. The most important thing about using Yelp! is contributing your own review so other “Yelpers” can find their way to enjoying a great meal and supporting local food and businesses.