The scene: I’m at a restaurant on a trip abroad. The waiter asks, “Do you need a minute to decide?” I shake my head and smile. I don’t need a minute; in fact, I don’t even need a menu. I knew what my husband and I were going to have before we’d walked in the door. Before we’d even left home, I had not only selected the restaurants where we’d be eating, I’d also looked at all the menus and picked out every dish we’d order.
You can call me a control freak, but let me explain how I got to be this way. I can afford only a few very short trips each year, and when I travel, I want every meal to be an event. When I have a bland, boring meal, I feel as disappointed as if I’d arrived in Paris and discovered that Notre-Dame had been demolished. I’m not looking for fancy restaurants or truly spectacular dishes; I can have those at home, in New York City. Instead, I want meals that really take me to a foreign place and make me feel as if I belong there—that I’m not just a tourist wearing a backpack, with a city map in her hand and a camera dangling off her neck.
My fantasy goes like this: My husband and I are wandering the cobblestoned streets of an old European city. We get tired and hungry, and just when we feel we can’t take another step, one of us happens to notice the door of a tiny restaurant. There are plenty of people inside, all locals, yet the place isn’t too loud or crowded. The recipes are the owner’s grandmother’s; the ingredients come from the owner’s sister’s farm, the wine from his father-in-law’s vineyard. The food is simple yet nuanced. We take a few bites and have a few sips of the wine, then sit back and enjoy the triumph of discovery.
When my husband and I took our first trips abroad—13 years ago, to France, Italy and Spain—I believed that this fantasy would be very easy to fulfill. We didn’t consult any guidebooks and didn’t ask for any recommendations; we simply went to the first nice-looking restaurant in sight whenever we felt like eating. But it turned out that spontaneity brought us nothing but terrible disappointment. Among our meals were stale sandwiches made with something that was supposed to be chicken but tasted like dried twigs, and oxtail stew that looked as if somebody had already chewed the meat off the bones.
But the champion of bad meals was at a small café in Paris. Imagine a dish called Salade Parisienne, with canned corn and pigeon droppings on a bed of wilted lettuce. Very real pigeon droppings, because we had asked for a table outside—the street looked so beautiful, and I thought the pigeons’ cooing sounded charming. The worst thing about an experience like that is not even the disgust, dissatisfaction and marital strain (my husband hadn’t wanted to sit outside to begin with; he thought it was a stupid idea and not romantic at all) but the gnawing disappointment of a wasted meal.
The next time my husband and I traveled to Paris, I planned more seriously. I gathered restaurant recommendations and mapped the distance from each restaurant to our hotel or a certain landmark we were going to visit, preparing plans B and C in case we chose to sightsee in a different area at that time. When I looked at the restaurants’ websites, I intended only to check on the hours. But I became completely engrossed by the menus. Without realizing it, I started mentally planning a meal—what would be a good entrée to follow a plateau de fruits de mer (fillet of cod? or pigeon breast with foie gras?) and would I still have an appetite afterward for crêpes flambées au Grand Marnier? When I couldn’t decide between two especially attractive choices, I mentally ordered the other one for my husband so I could try them both.
Those menus became so strongly imprinted in my memory that when my husband and I finally got to Paris, I would point to the restaurants we passed on the street and recite their offerings. “Look—Citrus Etoile. They have Velouté Léger de Foie Gras et d’Huîtres Chaudes, a foie gras soup with oysters, for 30 euros.”
Our lunch at Perraudin was the perfect example of a well-researched meal. The location was excellent—right between the Luxembourg Gardens, where we’d spent the morning, and our hotel in the Latin Quarter. The place itself was very old-fashioned French, with dark tables, dusty mirrors and lacy curtains, and the food was simple and unaffected. My husband thought he wanted to order roast chicken, but I steered him toward the beef bourguignon. I had planned for him to have roast chicken the next day at another restaurant. So we enjoyed an endive salad with velvety, sharp Roquefort cheese and a beef bourguignon that was so luscious and flavorful that I had to disregard the fact that I was full and ask for extra bread to sop up the sauce. “And it only took me a couple of weeks of research to arrive at this perfection,” I thought as I ate the last piece of sauce-soaked bread.
And, perhaps, that was exactly the problem with the meal. I had prepared for it too well. Yes, the food was wonderful, but I had spent so much time mentally tasting it beforehand that I ruined a large part of the excitement. There was no element of surprise, no triumph of discovery, but instead a pervasive feeling of being not just a tourist, but a zealous, overachieving one—the most touristy tourist that could possibly exist. I remember one place recommended by a guidebook as a lunch spot for professors from the nearby Sorbonne. Well, most of the people at the neighboring tables were carrying cameras, backpacks and fresh editions of that same American guidebook, all eyeing each other with obvious displeasure. There is nothing wrong about eating with your compatriots, but it surely ruins the exotic feel of the meal.
So is there an alternative? Some kind of a compromise between planning and spontaneity? Lately, I’ve been toying with an idea: On my next trip abroad, I am going to do a restaurant watch. Every night I will go to a different nice neighborhood, away from touristy areas. I will slowly walk up and down the streets pretending to be a flaneur, but I’ll actually be watching to see which restaurants fill up better than others.
Once I determine which restaurants are worth my attention, I’ll take the next step—window-tasting. (My husband invented that expression, with disgust, to describe how I spy through restaurant windows at people’s plates.) I’m not sure what I will do about the places with curtained windows; I might persuade my husband to walk in and ask the hostess a couple of questions while I look around. After two or three evenings of this, I will have my list of restaurants—and I will have discovered them myself. In the meantime, we can eat at the previously researched places: nothing wrong with perfect beef bourguignon.
My husband thinks my restaurant-watching idea is terrible, and that window-tasting is rude and embarrassing. I disagree: I think people should feel flattered that they’ve ordered so well that strangers feel compelled to stop and gape. And why would I be embarrassed? I’ll never see these people again. “How would you like it if somebody stared at you like that as you ate?” my husband asked me. Well, I can see his point. But what wouldn’t I do for the sake of a perfect meal?
Lara Vapnyar is the author of There Are Jews in My House, Memoirs of a Muse and a forthcoming collection of short stories, Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love.