Netting a Table
Long delays. Dead ends. Heavy congestion. No, I'm not talking about the trip itself but about the planning of the trip--specifically the often frustrating business of searching on-line for accurate, enticing information about restaurants at your destination. The Internet may have made it easy to trade stocks in your pajamas, but so far it's failed to deliver what we really need: a definitive, constantly updated, easy-to-find English-language guide to great dining in, say, Greenland. Still, the Internet's ability to store data and connect users has made it an essential resource for travelers who care about food--provided, of course, they know where to look. Here are a few suggestions.
For timely, frank and well-written dining advice, the ink-stained wretches who toil as newspaper restaurant reviewers are hard to beat. The digital revolution, far from putting them out of work, has made their writing that much more accessible. Before setting off for Paris, you can (and should) log on to the Web site of the International Herald Tribune (www.iht.com) and look up reviews by Patricia Wells, the doyenne of expat food writers and an F&W contributing editor. Whether raving about the feats of culinary alchemy at Pierre Gagnaire or taking a knife to designer Philippe Starck's trendy Bon ("I wish he had stuck to toothbrushes...and stayed clear of creating menus"), she is always entertaining and informative. Best of all, she is as susceptible to the charms of a tiny bistro as she is to any Michelin-starred palace. Wells's reviews also appear on her own Web site at www.patriciawells.com, which includes useful (if infrequently updated) lists of top tables in Paris, Provence and the rest of the world.
More acerbic than Wells is A.A. Gill, the feared reviewer for London's Sunday Times (www.sunday-times.co.uk). When you type "restaurant reviews by A.A. Gill" into the paper's search engine, you're rewarded with such zingers as this description of the prices at Spoon, the London branch of superchef Alain Ducasse's haute culinary empire: "the worst value for money since her last husband married Zsa Zsa Gabor." Now, there's a phrase you won't find in many guidebooks.
Traveling beyond England or France? A newspaper search engine called thepaperboy.com contains links to English-language newspapers as far afield as The Jerusalem Post and The Times of India. (Look in the Top Drawer pulldown at the bottom of the home page.) The listings on the search engine also alert you as to whether a paper has an English-language version.
Every city should have a guide like the Tokyo Food Page (www.bento.com/tokyofood.html). With everything from news on the latest restaurant openings to a neatly arranged dining directory to amusing ephemera, such as photos of Osaka's strangest restaurant signs (picture a 12-foot-high mechanical crab with thrashing claws), it fulfills its aim of being "a complete guide to Japanese cuisine and eating in Tokyo."
Sadly, the Tokyo Food Page isn't so much a rare site as a unique one--which makes the on-line Time Out city guides (www.timeout.com) all the more indispensable for urban wanderers. Coverage spans more than 30 cities worldwide (in Italy, Florence, Rome and Venice are all represented), and the site offers good general introductions to dining customs in each destination as well as lively, insidery descriptions of local restaurants. What's more, the site doesn't just rehash information available off-line; the regularly updated This Month section also offers a steady diet of info about hot new restaurants and seasonal dining. Whether revealing the "secret dining room of the stars" in Shanghai, the arrival of "designer French food" in Prague or the installation of public benches near Venice's best pizza stand, Time Out's foreign correspondents are covering the beat.
Of the traditional travel guides, Fodor's (www.fodors.com) has made the smoothest transition to the Web. Its dining reviews, which you can sort by price, location or cuisine, are easy to find and packed with useful info (opening times, credit cards, etc.). The site's main strength is its comprehensiveness: Coverage extends past city walls to the Loire Valley, the Amalfi Coast, the Caribbean and beyond. Fodor's also recently asked readers to submit their own rants and raves, and the users' forthright opinions make an interesting contrast to the guide's solid but unspectacular commentary.
For women who like to travel off the beaten path, journeywoman.com,a new guide that relies heavily on contributions from its users, contains a wealth of excellent, eclectic advice. Stories range from "Kathmandu--Her Favorite Restaurants" to "The Real New Jersey." The site also touts HERmail.net, a sister site that allows users around the world to solicit and share tips about travel destinations via e-mail.
Both sexes can take refuge in the comprehensive listings offered at whatsonwhen.com.The Food & Drink section of this global guide to cultural events lists dozens of culinary happenings, from London's Singapore Food Festival to the Hari Raya Puasa Light-Up Feast in Singapore itself. The site also covers food markets, from Barcelona's La Boqueria to the Sydney Fish Market, making it the perfect Internet resource for those of us who march on our stomachs.
One of the most intriguing things about the Web is its much vaunted ability to create so-called virtual communities. A number of sites, including about.com and ivirtualtourist.com,have chat rooms where individuals can dish about dining. The most promising of these sites is iAgora.com, whose aim is "connecting internationals" by creating a space where people can swap information about work, study and travel abroad. Its newly added iCities section (you'll find it under iTravel) offers dining tips about destinations from natives and frequent visitors.
By clicking on users' screen names, you can view their profiles and find out more about them. For example, I learned that one of the best places in Florence to get a trippa alla fiorentina, or tripe sandwich, is a little stall opposite the San Ambrogio market. My source was Cassie, a 31-year-old British expat who's been living abroad for five years. From Frea, a 26-year-old Frenchwoman, I discovered that Le Café Charbon is the "in" place in Paris's fashionable Oberkampf district. Think of the site as a Zagat's without the middleman, and--in the spirit of virtual karma--don't forget to add your own recommendations. Perhaps together we can write that essential guide to Greenland.
Dirk Standen is the editor-in-chief of iTurf.com, a community site for pop- culture junkies. He has written about the dining scene for other publications, including the New York Post, and sidewalk.com.