There’s something about youth that brings luck. That, or we were simply undiscerning diners, fuelled by love, and unwilling to let the bubble be burst by a leathery steak or flaccid vegetables.
Every meal was perfect: soupe de poisson topped with rouille and ladled into a terracotta bowl in Aix-en-Provence; oysters in the French playground of Arcachon; salty, crispy patatas bravas in San Sebastian; delectable tarte au citron in a nondescript laneway in Paris.
We were newly graduated students, travelling around France and Spain, camping and sleeping in basic pensionne. There was no TripAdvisor to consult, no Urbanspoon to throw up the most hip and happening joints, no crowdsourcing on Facebook for friends’ recommendations.
But we had a single intent: to eat well on a budget. Whether it was tomatoes sliced on to a baguette purchased in the local supermarche or yoghurt set in little glass pots or an olive and anchovy-strewn pissaladiere, the food was excellent.
Twenty years later, I still rely on strategies finessed over those months to dine well when travelling.
Ask a local unconnected to the food industry
On a trip to Wellington, I lost my scarf and nipped into a shop to replace it. The assistant was great – stylish and a similar age to me – so I asked her which three bars she’d recommend for a taste of New Zealand’s capital city.
Start at Foxglove, she suggested, then go on to Matterhorn, then Havana. All were fantastic (and all are still open!)
Take a chance, create a story
While trekking in Nepal I asked one of our sherpas where he lived. He mentioned a village several days' walk away.
“Could we visit your house?” I asked, keen to experience a Himalayan home. Dawa’s wife welcomed us shyly, served tea and, via her translating husband, told us a little of her life.
All we had was tea, but we took away so much more.
Likewise Tyler Cowen, author of Freakonomics, tells how in Nicaragua he found an older taxi driver and asked to be driven somewhere serving local food.
As well as the taxi fare, Cowen bought the driver lunch and paid him $10 for his time. Apparently the 'quesillo', a creamy cheese tortilla was delicious and a fraction of what he’d pay at a city restaurant.
Don’t eat in the hotel
You’re on holiday! For the love of a good adventure, be curious.
Peruse at lunchtime, book for dinner
Head out for a stroll during the busy lunch period and you’ll see which places are full of locals who would ordinarily eat at home in the evening. Book for later.
Travel with a celebrity chef. Heston Blumenthal’s Travelling Life
And if you're heading anywhere near Noosa ... A Foodie’s Guide To Noosa And Surrounds
Save up by following the 'two simple, one fancy' rule
Eating out is expensive – even more so if you have one average meal after another. Why not spend two evenings picnicking on cheese, meats, bread and fruit picked up from the supermarket and use money saved for a slap-up meal at a renowned restaurant on the third?
I’ll never forget the Picasso paintings and endive salad at La Colombe d’Or in the south of France yet it wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier belt-tightening.
Forego the menu and ask the chef to serve you his or her best
Everyone loves to show off their work. So let them.
Trust your instincts
Does it look fun? Are the diners smiling? Do the staff look attentive? You only have a split-second to decide at the door but give it a shot. And don’t presume busy equals brilliant. People are lemmings; be prepared to take a risk.
The best stories are often horror stories
No one back home wants to hear of how you dined on melt-in-your-mouth beef cheeks or an exceptional tiramisu. They want to hear about the rude waiter or the weird food combo or the road stop full of prisoners on day release. Laugh at dodgy food and bad experiences because those are the ones you’ll remember.