As an enthusiastic foodie and avid traveller, I am always on the look for new restaurants and TripAdvisor is usually my number one go-to app. In the past four years, since I’ve started using the platform religiously, I’ve put together 114 restaurant reviews in more than 10 different countries (and over 20 different cities) and have reached out to more than 80000 readers. Here’s a complete guide on how to pick the right restaurant with TripAdvisor.
Finding the right restaurant can be such a headache
I started using TripAdvisor while on a trip around Sri Lanka. While I tend to stay away from organized tours, be they private or with a group, we ended up on one. Not being fully happy with our guide’s set itinerary that included mostly touristic restaurants and large all-you-can eat buffets, I decided to take the matter into my own hands and look for restaurants myself. Half a year later, while traveling in Vietnam, the only app I used to look for restaurants was TripAdvisor.
Of course, at the beginning I didn’t know how to use the platform at its full potential, and quite often restaurants were a hit or miss. I used to base my research on proximity, which is no longer a criteria for me now. Lately though, I feel like I’ve cracked the code and landed is some great places with good food and a great experience. This is why I’ve decided to write this guide.
My 6 restaurant criteria
Before I rush you into reading a guide that will, at the end of the day, carry some of my subjectivity, I think it’s important that you also understand my restaurant standards. And while I am always on the look for excellence, I am also empathetic towards restaurants that have recently opened, or to any mishap that might occur due to various reasons.
1. I set very high expectations
As the aspiring food critic that I wish to someday become, my expectations when I go to a restaurant (be it for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner) are very high. I pay close attention to the menu, the theme, the plating, the quality of ingredients and how they are cooked. I look at the levels of authenticity or innovation in the dishes, and quite often also try to find the chef’s source of inspiration. If you’ve dined with me, you know how critical I usually am.
2. A top restaurant doesn’t only serve great food, but creates a memorable experience
Customer experience is crucial to me. So are the atmosphere, the noise level and the décor. I have given below average ratings to restaurants that serve excellent food but are unbearably noisy or have rude, untrained staff. Likewise, I have written excellent reviews for restaurants where the food was good or very good (not necessarily excellent), but the experience was top notch.
3. Mistakes are human, but knowing how to deal with them is what makes a place truly special
Just recently I went to a restaurant where some cork pieces ended up in our bottle of wine. It happens, it happened to me plenty of times. The waitress immediately offered to replace the bottle or, instead, to give us some dessert wine at the end of our meal. While I did appreciate it (mainly because there are plenty of restaurants where the staff would never respond to their mistakes), I do expect it to be the norm.
4. First impressions are not always a deal breaker
Looks don’t always matter… location doesn’t always matter… as long as the experience and food I’m getting is excellent. Even Michelin Inspectors proved this to be right, by awarding a star to a little noodle stall in Singapore. The best meal I had in Vietnam was from a local restaurant that would most likely not even be allowed to operate under European hygiene standards. Likewise, I’ve experienced restaurants with great looks but awful food or service.
5. Expectations should be contextual
This means that if I go to a fine dining restaurant, I expect the entire menu to be built around one or more ingredients or a specific theme, colour or technique. I will pay attention to a lot of the details that are related to the finesse of every dish. On the other hand, if I go to a local or traditional restaurant, I will expect to discover authentic flavours and to be given the opportunity to really dive into that specific culture and its cuisine. A fancy, artfully plated, medium rare piece of venison cooked by a famous chef can easily bring out the same emotions and satisfaction as a perfectly spiced lamb curry from a small, traditional Indian restaurant. However, I find it important to set my expectations according to the type of restaurant I am visiting.
6. Prices are not everything
High prices do not guarantee excellence, and low prices are not synonym for poor quality. Of course, every city and country has its average prices, and therefore I will never compare a restaurant in Hanoi (where I can eat for £5) to one in London (where I can’t eat below £15). On a similar note, every city has its culture, which is why I will rarely compare an Asian restaurant in London (where there is a strong Asian culture) with one in Bucharest (where Asian food is just starting to conquer restaurants’ menus).
So, what should you look for on TripAdvisor?
I go to new restaurants regularly, and my past experiences have shaped my high expectations. The following couple of points are what helps me choose a new restaurant to go to.
The 6 essentials
1. Build your criteria and set your expectations
In order to surf through the long list of restaurants, it is useful to decide upon a couple of aspects that you find relevant and that will determine your choice. Those can be price, location, type of cuisine or awards won. I usually check out the price, the reviews, then check out the restaurant’s website and look at the menu. If the menu seems appealing, I look even further at reviews and try to find out if the restaurant has won any awards or if any publications have written about it.
2. Start from the top
When exploring your options, always start by looking at the top rated restaurants in the city and work your way down based on your chosen criteria. If proximity is a crucial factor, then always look at the best restaurants that are close to you.
3. Too many or very few reviews can be tricky
Understanding reviews and reading between the lines can be very difficult. Going for the restaurant with the largest number of them can mean the restaurant is very touristic and mainstream. Going for one with very few good reviews can mean it just recently opened, and they may be from friends, family or relatives of the owner or staff. Of course, this is not set in stone, but it has proven to be a safety net for me so far.
4. The 80/20 reviews rule
Another good tip for looking at reviews is using the Pareto principle, or the 80/20 rule. Great restaurants usually have about 80% excellent and very good reviews (4 and 5 stars), but only about 20% average or negative ones (3, 2 or 1 star).
5. Excellent is excellent, not very good
If a restaurant has 4 and 5 star reviews that are more or less equally spread, it often means that the restaurant is very good, but not excellent. Feel free to apply this rule to lower ratings as well.
6. A picture says a thousand words
Surf through the pictures that other reviewers have uploaded. Do they look appealing? Does the food look like something you’d like? It’s the best way to experience the restaurant without tasting the food.
To infinity and beyond
The latest reviews are likely to be the most accurate
If you are interested in a restaurant, read its first 5 reviews. Since they are the most recent ones, they are more likely to portray an image that’s closer to reality. There are many factors that can impact upon the experience you have in a restaurant: changing the chef, relocating, a lack of supervision due to holidays, etc.
Go from the review to the reviewer
If you have time and energy, check out a couple of reviewers’ profiles. What level of contribution do they have? You can go as far as checking other reviews they wrote – are the restaurants they reviewed similar to your taste? Remember, writing a review takes effort, so ask yourself why the reviewer put in the time to write it and what that can say about their experience.
Go beyond TripAdvisor
The platform offers you a straight-forward link to the restaurant’s website. Check out the menu. Does it inspire you? Does it sound like something you would like? Read the ‘about us’. Does it say anything about the chef? Has the restaurant won any awards? Has it been featured in any guides? A good sign for me is when a restaurant is featured in the Michelin guide without it necessarily owning any Michelin stars.
And while there is no perfect recipe for guaranteed success, using the above tips can help you pick good restaurants over bad ones. You don’t have to limit yourself to TripAdvisor. If you truly wish to get closer to the restaurant with the best fit for you, use other tools as well. Instagram is trending as a restaurant guide thanks to its hashtags and geotags. This article has a good collection of other apps that you can choose in your research. Or, if you’re wishing to be a little more tech free, this article is full of useful tips on how to pick a good restaurant when traveling.
Finally, don’t forget: support the community and write your own review. This will help other foodies, like you, find a better choice to fit their foodie desire.