Ready to learn how to find the best local restaurants in a city? Picture this … it’s a beautiful, sunny day in Florida. The marina is hopping and you’re sitting outside, right next to boats coming in and out, fishermen selling fresh seafood right off the dock, tourists and locals strolling along the pier. The margarita in your hand is made with fresh ingredients, icy cold, and salted – and since it’s Happy Hour they are 2 for $8!
Just then the server brings you a plate of fresh oysters, a fish dip made with freshly caught local fish, and fish tacos overloaded with toppings. Sounds wonderful, right? Way better than greasy, unhealthy fast food. That was one of our recent meals in Clearwater, FL.
One of the things I love, both when traveling and when at home, is to try out new local restaurants. I am very lucky to live in an area that has many stellar local places. But even when traveling, I take the time to do a little research to find the best places to eat the area has to offer. After all, if we are going to spend our hard-earned money on restaurants, I want it to be worth it!
6 Methods for Finding a Great Local Restaurant
1. Start your search with Yelp
If I’m looking for the best local restaurant in a city, the first thing I do is open up Yelp. Even when we are driving on a road trip, once the stomachs start rumbling, the phones come out and the search for a place to eat begins.
💥 Insider tip: use the map feature to check for restaurants along your route.
I trained my kids to use Yelp, so we’ll all start yelling out the names of places as we find them. Then we are each scrambling to look up the details and reviews of each one.
Unless you don’t have any other options, always pick a restaurant with at LEAST a 4-star rating. Even better if you can find something 4+ or 5. Once you’ve picked a potential spot, take a few minutes to read the reviews.
Often the bad reviews are about things like the temperature of the restaurant, the atmosphere stuffy, etc. But unless you check them out, you won’t know if these will be issues for you. Be careful though as the reviews can be addicting. Many times we’ve gotten swept down the rabbit hole of reading reviews. They can be hilarious and actually excellent road trip entertainment.
After ensuring the reviews are mostly positive, take a look at the menu. If the menu looks good, then the last step is to call the restaurant to make sure they are open. Don’t assume it is based upon the hours on Yelp – we’ve been burned too many times before and it’s super frustrating as you then have to start your search over again.
I’ve also started leaving reviews for myself on Yelp to remind us of places we liked so we can hit them up next time we are in the area (tip: I usually put descriptions that are useful to us like “happy hour was great,” “the kalamata hummus was amazing”, etc.). Plus, if someone asks for a recommendation it’s easy to pull up a name and address.
You could also try Zagat, but I find Yelp much easier to use and has many more options.
2. Keep a list on your phone of local restaurants to try
I keep a list on my phone (in the notes app) of places I visit often and under each location, I have restaurants I’d like to try, things to do, etc. This way, if someone mentions a restaurant, or I read a review in the paper or a magazine, I just add it to the list.
This works best for places lots of people visit (think Las Vegas, Disney, Destin, etc.). It’s super helpful when it’s dinner time and no one wants to pick a place. You can just open up the list and give something on it a try.
I also use this tip at home. I have a running list of restaurants I want to try broken down into sections of the city. That way, when we have a restaurant week, or we want to meet friends for dinner but don’t know where to go, it’s easy to pick.
If you are anything like me, when you aren’t looking for a restaurant you can think of half a dozen you’d like to try, but when it’s actually time to eat … your mind is blank. With a handy list, you will always be prepared!
3. Ask the locals for recommendations
Back in the days before cell phones (anyone remembers those days?), this was our go-to method for finding good local restaurants. After all, who knows the area better than the locals? And definitely ask them for the local specialties – even if it’s not restaurant specific you’ll know what to look for on the menu.
We still do this, but often it’s a less strategic tactic and more of something that comes up as we are chatting with a server, shop owner, or hotel desk clerk. We’ll ask them for their favorite local places to eat in the area.
We’ll typically preface it with a qualifier such as “local, fun atmosphere, doesn’t have to be fancy, etc.” but even then sometimes we’ll get crazy answers. More than once we’ve been referred to Applebee’s or The Olive Garden when asking a resident for their favorite local spot. Not really what we mean by local food places, but we just shrug it off, smile and thank them and then use one of our other techniques to find the best nearby local restaurants.
4. Do some upfront research
If you have time before a trip, do a Google search or read some travel blogs to see what travel writers and other people recommend. If what you find sounds interesting, take note. I’ll also sometimes go to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) to see what they recommend.
Almost every larger city has an Instagram “foodie” account, so do a search on Instagram to find the one for the city you are visiting. For instance, I just typed in “Indianapolis food” and four Instagram accounts sharing the best local spots popped up. Score!
Pinterest is another fantastic resource for finding great local restaurants in a city. Open up Pinterest and do a search on “restaurants xyz”. You’ll be amazed at how many options you can find!
When I do these searches, I’ve learned to set a timer on my phone so that I don’t end up spending hours researching restaurants. It’s amazing how quickly you can get sucked into the information you find on these searches.
Before you know it, you have a list of 30 restaurants and have lost several hours of your time – all for an upcoming day trip where you might only need 2 or 3 choices. Don’t ask me how I know, just be smarter than me and give yourself a 20-minute time limit – that’s plenty of time.
5. Find a place to eat BEFORE everyone is starving
While you are out shopping, sightseeing, or whatever your day brings, make a point to stop and check out the menus of interesting restaurants you see, regardless of the time of day.
It’s better to have a feel for what’s around you (and maybe even have a place picked out) before everyone starts getting hangry. There is nothing worse than settling for an okay restaurant just because it’s close to where you are and everyone is so hungry they can’t make a decision.
6. Enjoy a food tour
Have you ever felt like a kid in a candy store when visiting a new city, overwhelmed by all the tantalizing dining options? Well, I’ve got a solution for you: food tours! Think of them like the “sampler platter” of a destination’s dining scene.
Instead of settling for just one meal at one restaurant, a food tour gives you bite-sized experiences of multiple spots. It’s like a culinary treasure hunt around the city! Plus, you don’t have to worry about suffering from the dreaded “Fear Of Missing Out” when choosing a restaurant. Taste a bit of everything and you won’t leave with regret.
These tours are often led by local experts. That means you get to hear cool stories behind the dishes, meet passionate chefs, and discover hidden gems that most tourists might miss. On our last food tour in Ybor City, our guide shared not just the best food in the area, but also a lot about the history of this fascinating place.
Finally, a food tour is a great way to bookmark places you’d like to go back to for a full meal. And, you have a local resource to give you more ideas. Since your tour guide loves food and is a foodie expert, you can be sure they can advise you on more terrific local restaurants you should visit.
💥I’ve had the best luck finding food tours on Viator. I’ve got this one in Chicago on deck for our next weekend adventure. I mean 5 stars with over 500 reviews?
Conclusion: How to Find Good Restaurants in Any City
Alright, flavor explorers, let’s wrap this food journey up with a bow on top! 🎀 Whether you’re wandering the sunny streets of Florida with a margarita in hand or navigating the bustling corners of Chicago, finding the crème de la crème of local dining doesn’t have to be a Herculean task.
From Yelp shout-outs to belly-satisfying food tours, you’re now armed with a smorgasbord of tips to make your next meal out a story-worthy feast. So, next time your tummy rumbles in a new city, channel your inner food detective, and let these methods help you find good local food. Because let’s be honest, the journey is fun, but the destination (aka delicious food) is oh-so-satisfying!