"there comes a point when researching cool restaurants so you don’t ruin your holiday tips into, well … ruining your holiday by researching cool restaurants." Gwendolyn Smith - The Guardian
I'm feeling a bit lazy and so I thought I would randomly trawl some holiday snaps for inspiration for a Moment in Time post. I haven't done one of those for a while - mostly because I have dealt with all the photographs on this website. Hence the random pick of a particular holiday. So here we are in a small white town called Cisternino in Puglia with our holiday friends, checking out menus for our last meal of the week. I cannot now remember whether this was the one we chose but I do remember we were choosing between two that were almost next door to each other on this lovely street high on the edge of the town, looking out over the miles and miles of olive tree groves. Below are a couple of snaps of the place and of us ensconced in the restaurant ready to eat our meal.
To be honest I do not remember a great deal about the meal, although the setting which was semi-underground was very pleasing, and the company was great - it had been all week. But I do remember the town and that beautiful wide walkway along the edge of the town - a sort of long piazza really, with a view to the sea of acres and acres of olive groves. I remember the occasion. It is rare in fact that I remember the food rather than the occasion.
But my topic of the day is choosing where to eat when on holiday. It can be a bit fraught can't it when you have a group? Maybe even when there are just two of you. On a couple of our holidays we had relatively large groups of people - and I do remember one occasion where tempers became somewhat frayed - down on the coast in France towards the Spanish border. We all went into the nearest seaside town and perused the menus on the long line of restaurants near the shore. So hard. As I say - tempers frayed and in the end the choice was entirely random - well where we happened to be standing at the time. Then there was another time when in Beaucaire we chose one with a table outside opposite the picturesque canal, we even sat down until one member of the group decided that she didn't like the noise of the road. So we all left, and then wandered fruitlessly and down up checking out restaurants either unattractive or full before returning to the place but, by now with no outside tables. But never mind. I remember the setting and I do remember some rather sensational seafood that one of our group was served.
“Success and perfection is a little bit tedious. It’s the ones that go wrong that make the great stories.” Linda Blair, psychologist - The Guardian
When we were young and went on camping holidays with friends - usually just one other couple - we would just cruise the menus in the town or village we were at and just picked what appealed, and what we could afford. We were rarely disappointed. In our middle years our holidays were often just David and I travelling from place to place and using the red Michelin guide and recommendations from hotel staff, of where to eat. We were rarely, very rarely disappointed with the red Michelin guide. Today Michelin is online, and my son and family now in France, have apparently been only using Michelin for recommendations - even going to the extent of booking lunches in Michelin starred restaurants. Apparently these lunches are affordable - well for the moderately well off anyway. I think they consider it part of the children's education, and the children do indeed seem to be lapping it up.
And then, of course, there is Trip Advisor.
"Thankfully, the world wide web now gives us access to a previously untapped fount of knowledge: the Random Nameless Stranger. Even better, a whole bunch of random nameless strangers, brought together in a one-stop shop of holiday wisdom: TripAdvisor. ... a healthy dose of cynicism is advised when using the guide." Jennifer Ah-Kin - The Guardian
She is right on that last point. We have used it occasionally - more for Bed and Breakfast places than anything - but always with a touch of cynicism like she says. There is always somebody who is going to find something wrong - usually an American it seems to me. They seem less flexible than the rest of the world. But yes, if you are really, really stuck for a recommendation then it's a last resort.
Here I am looking pleased with myself because I just booked a table at this small place near our hotel in Rome, on a Trip Advisor recommendation. Now I won't say that it was a disaster of a meal, but I do have a vague memory of it not living up to the glowing reviews from the Trip Advisor comments. Ditto for another place we had seen in Trip Advisor in Rome where we dined with friends.
It was Ok - but nothing special, although we had an amazingly wonderful evening eating, chatting to the Italians on the next table and cruising through the streets of vibrant although touristy Trastavere.
"You have enough cash to blow on a plate of pasta puttanesca that tastes the same as the one you make at home, but is slightly superior because you are eating it while wearing perfume in an artfully dilapidated alleyway. That’s not something to sniff at." Gwendolyn Smith
The very best places we have dined on holidays, have occasionally been in some sort of guide, or they have been famous - Paul Bocuse in Lyons - for my 50th birthday - a long time ago, but the majority of the very best places have been the personal recommendations of our hosts, whoever they were - managers of the houses we stayed in, hotel staff, B&B hosts. Like the very modest, although large place out in the country somewhere near our house in central Italy, where I ate the very best pasta I have ever eaten - alas no picture of that. I, no we, were obviously too entranced by the pasta to photograph it We just ate it. The same lady who recommended that - the owner of our holiday home - also recommended a great pizza place - wonderful for the pizza but even more for the fact that it was full of locals in large groups. Ditto for the pizza place we were taken to up and down dale by the manager of our house in Abruzzo. Pictured below the huge pizza he chose for us. Well pizza is almost always just pizza I think, but nothing can beat that evening.
And yes, that quote at the top of the page is right. You can spend far too much time on the internet trying to find the perfect restaurant, and it might be worth it for the place you are staying, but not for a meal. I personally think half the fun of a holiday is searching for the perfect place to eat dinner, whether it be an ad hoc thing as you venture out - though if you do it's best to start early - or semi-planned by searching earlier in the day and making a booking. Or if you are in a remote village and there is only one place to eat, well try it. It's only one meal after all. They are all only one meal. There's always an opportunity to improve on it. And really - don't do any of that arguing over who had what and therefore what to pay - just split the bill. Totting up the tally of holiday costs can also be fun in a household of friends, believe it or not. It's a holiday and it's only money. Bearing in mind that we are the extremely privileged people of the world who can say things like that.
I began with one moment in time - a convivial look at menus in a small Puglian town, and of course that brought back a whole lot of memories of that wonderful week, so many of them associated with food - shown below: the beautiful white town of Ostuni, where we dined in a completely random way in a tiny place in a tiny back street, where a model posed for a selfie, and a wealthy Albanian couple posed for their wedding photographs; the touristy town of Alberobello with its hundreds of hobbit like houses; a seafood lunch more or less randomly chosen in a tiny fishing port; a trip to an olive grove with its 2000 year old trees that still produce olives and lunch on the terrace of our beautiful home.
Alas I fear that this will never happen again. Perhaps we should try cruising the menus of the numerous cafés of Eltham, whilst pretending we are on holiday. Well we sort of are. Life is a holiday these days.