1. TRUST LOCAL CHEFS
Behind every restaurant is a person who loves to eat. If you find yourself dining at a fabulous place, scare up the courage to ask the chef for his or her favorite spot in town.
2. BE WARY OF REVIEWS BY LAYPEOPLE
Crowd-sourced comment sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor and Citysearch and our own Travel Notes can be useful -- if swallowed with a shakerful of salt. Here's how to tell which posters to trust:
Step 1: Pick a restaurant, start scanning the reviews, and focus on users who write detailed reviews and remember what they ate.
Step 2: Play food-FBI agent and run your own background checks, viewing these posters' profiles and scrutinizing past comments.
Step 3: Disregard comments by those who have reviewed fewer than five restaurants, who adore or hate everything they eat, and whose glowing or critical write-ups emphasize decor, service or scene rather than food.
Step 4: The remaining reviewers should give you a fairly reliable take on whether the restaurant lives up to its rep.
Note: If this sounds time-consuming, you could stick to publications with fact checkers and reputations to uphold, such as -- to pick an example at random -- ours.
3. READ THE RIGHT BLOGS
The vast expanse of online food chatter is full of white noise and misleading information. But some trustworthy voices shine through: We'll eat wherever these food-obsessed bloggers tell us to.
portlandfoodanddrink.com: Food Dude is a former California restaurant industry insider who insists on anonymity and is responsible for this exhaustive accounting of Portland, Oregon's thrilling food scene. It includes a clickable map of reviewed restaurants.
tastingmenu.com: Hillel Cooperman, based in Seattle, loves both high-end and casual food; you'll drool over his detailed descriptions and gorgeous photos.
chuckeats.com: This opinionated, never self-righteous blogger is a San Francisco entrepreneur who's dined in the best restaurants around the world and isn't afraid to say when an expensive meal doesn't measure up.
4. VISIT A FARMERS' MARKET
Eating fruits, vegetables and meat from family-run farms -- as opposed to foods that spent more time on a plane than you did -- is a win-win: It's better for the environment and for your taste buds. Plus, strolling the market will show you what's in season -- and what to look for on menus. Ask the farmers which restaurants they supply, and seek those out. Or plug in a zip code to eatwellguide.org and you'll get a list of restaurants that support local foods.
5. DON'T SETTLE FOR THE LOCAL CLICHÉ
Some famous foods don't match their outsize reputations. So, instead of getting a Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia, try a roast pork sandwich at John's Roast Pork. Or, trade a New York City dirty water dog for a hot dog at Gray's Papaya.
6. EXPLORE CHINATOWNS
Whether in San Francisco or Cleveland, these neighborhoods are meccas for knickknack-hungry tourists, yes, but also for lovers of inexpensive, delicious food. Steven A. Shaw, author of Asian Dining Rules, knows how to discover the diamonds in the rough.
Get off the beaten path. Instead of settling for a place on the main drag, where the most touristy restaurants tend to be clustered, explore the side streets for hidden gems.
Smaller is better. Big restaurants with long menus are often factories, efficiently turning out mediocre dishes. Small spots with brief menus are more likely to be family-run and able to give attention to every plate of food.
Scan the menu. The more dishes you don't recognize, the better. If the menu's filled with commonplace stuff like General Tso's chicken, it's likely to be a generic restaurant.
No English=good news. If menus and signs are in Chinese and the servers speak little English, chances are you've found a place that doesn't cater to tourists.
Don't be afraid to stare -- at other diners' plates. People instinctively look at decor and clientele, when the most important thing is the food. If it looks appetizing, you're in the right place. If not, move on.
7. THEN VENTURE TO OTHER ETHNIC ENCLAVES
Chinatowns aren't the only neighborhoods that will transport you to another country (often for very little money). You just have to know where to look.
8. IF YOU SEE A LINE, QUIZ THE PERSON AT THE BACK
A long line of people shows that a place is popular, but it doesn't necessarily mean there's something tasty at the front. So ask the person at the back of the line these three questions:
Have you eaten here before? If he says no, move on to the next question. If he replies that yes, he comes every week for his taco fix, you know you have found a local, and a devoted one at that. Skip straight to question three.
Where'd you hear about it? You've found a tourist if the answer is "the Internet." You've found a food nerd if the answer is long and starts with, "My co-worker loves this place, and she's from Mexico City..."
Where else are you excited to eat? If he mentions a chain restaurant, consider walking away. If he lists the clichéd best spots in town, this line is worth 15 minutes of your time. If he rattles off the restaurants on your short list, it's worth an hour.
9. ONCE YOU'RE SEATED, ORDER SMART
After studying dishes from real, celebrated Charleston restaurants, we formed a composite menu. Then we asked Tom Sietsema, food critic at the Washington Post, to help us read between the lines and pick the dishes that are worth our time.
Aunt Molly's she-crab soup: "I'm always drawn to dishes named after people. They tend to have a history. Perhaps they're made with a recipe passed down through the generations."
Baby lettuces with shaved carrots, tiny potatoes, buttermilk dressing and homemade croutons: "Boring! This salad sounds like something you could get anywhere, any time of year."
Local Carolina shrimp with spicy slaw: "If you live in the Midwest or the Northeast, you may never again have a chance to eat these shrimp, caught from waters just a short drive away."
House-cured country ham with our own peach chutney and biscuits: "Homemade food doesn't always mean great food. But it'd be easy to buy these foods, and it shows attention to detail that the chef decided to make them."
Fudge Farms pork tacos with homemade tortillas, salsa verde and corn succotash: "An unusual item to find on this menu, and one that should spark your interest.Ask for the story behind the dish and you might have a happy surprise in store."
Filet mignon with truffled mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach: "This filet, with its predictable sides, looks like something the chef included to placate unadventurous eaters. His or her heart might not be in it."
Butter-basted triggerfish with Carolina rice "risotto" and field-peas: "This dish is significantly more expensive than the other main dishes, and doesn't include lobster or truffles. This suggests it could be special."
Classic crème brûlée: "This French dessert doesn't fit in among the Southern-inspired dishes on the menu, plus it's something you see everywhere (and one of the cheapest dishes to make)."
Our rhubarb pie with fresh whipped cream: "I'm often drawn to pie, especially when it's made with seasonal fruit, like rhubarb in spring or cherries in summer. Extra points for freshly whipped cream."
10. SCOPE OUT SMALL TOWNS
Jane and Michael Stern -- authors of 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late and co-founders of roadfood.com -- share their secrets:
Know what to ask locals. Don't ask them about the "best" restaurant in town -- people take that to mean a "fancy" restaurant. Instead, ask, "Where do you eat?"
Keep your eyes peeled. Hit the brakes if you spot a parking lot with police cars. Also watch for a place with a large animal on the roof, especially a pig or crab.
Make a beeline toward quirk. You know a restaurant is worth a shot if it has a motto or a set of rules posted (where to sit, how to order, not to curse, etc.).
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