“This isn’t a good sign,” murmured our friend. “The restaurant is empty.”
As she was walking at the front she didn’t spot me stopping to bang my head off the tastefully decorated wall. She’d asked us to book a table for 6.30/7pm. We told a white lie and said the place didn’t open until 7.30pm. We normally eat dinner at around 8.30pm so we’d met in the middle.
Of course it was empty, it was in an off the beaten track spot and the only people who ate there were locals who didn’t dine till later in the evening. The restaurant remained devoid of other customers for an hour. By 9pm there wasn’t a free table in the place.
Despite being well-travelled, our friend hadn’t connected the lack of other diners with the fact she was sticking to her eating patterns rather than those of the country she was visiting. It’s a common travel habit. Tripadvisor is full of restaurant reviews where people comment a restaurant has no atmosphere without the penny dropping it’s because they’re eating at the ‘wrong’ time.
It works both ways. We’re guilty of huffing and puffing about a country having a child’s eating patterns when dinner is served at what we consider to be late afternoon.
It’s one thing to want to dive into the gastronomy of a destination, but an authentic Slow Travel experience means embracing its eating patterns as well. These can vary significantly. Here are some examples from, mainly, rural areas around Europe.
The problem with Germany
Generally speaking there are many similarities between the Germans and the British. One of them is a fondness for dining at an early hour. Arriving at our rural hotel in the Black Forest around 9.30pm, we found we were too late for dinner. They very kindly rustled up a ham, cheese and pickle platter. But we did bitch a lot about dinner being over at a ridiculously early hour. Where there are alternative restaurants around there’s a bit more flexibility. When there hasn’t been an alternative, we’ve occasionally found ourselves struggling to fit in a full day’s research/walking and get back in time to freshen up before the dumpling soup is on the table.
It’s much the same with Austria. We had exactly the same experience on one visit there, we arrived at our hotel at 9pm and had to make to with a cold platter and a beer. It was very nice, but after a long day travelling we were looking forward to a relaxing meal.
Obviously it’s different when in a decent-sized town or city, and early dining will suit the preferences of a lot of northern Europeans. But for those of us who enjoy spending much of the evening over dinner when travelling, an early start and finish makes it feel like the dining experience is over before the evening has fully started.
Then there’s France
There’s a saying which goes :
Heaven in Europe is where
the English are the policemen
the French are the cooks
the German are the mechanics
the Italians are the lovers
and the Swiss organize everything.
As well as pandering to national stereotypes, it’s outdated. Neither do I subscribe to the French being the ‘cooks’ of Europe, not any more. Whilst I’ve enjoyed the food in various parts of France, there are other European countries where the gastronomy excites my taste buds more. The most disappointing Michelin star restaurant we’ve eaten at was in France. Maybe it’s partly to do with more relaxed eating patterns in other countries (the Michelin restaurant was fussy to the point of being a parody of pretentiousness). Rolling into Forcalquier in Provence around 8pm on a Saturday night in September and we were lucky to get squeezed into a restaurant before it closed. We’ve had similar experiences in other areas, including staff at a restaurant in Saint-Remy de Provence getting snooty because we had the audacity to ask if they were still serving lunch at 1.30pm. These are prime examples of us not getting to grips with the local eating patterns.
To me it seems Italy manages to strike a balance where eating patterns fit both those who like to eat relatively early and those who prefer to dine after 8pm. I can’t remember a situation where restaurants were too quiet early evening (not that we’d be eating before eight) or chairs were being put on tables before the night hit its stride. In one restaurant near Lake Maggiore we chose to leave before the final post-diner chocolates were served, but that was because the rest of the meal had taken around four hours and we had a long drive back to our hotel.
The examples so far mostly relate to rural areas, country towns etc. but two contrasting districts in Venice illustrated how places which are very popular tourist destinations don’t necessarily reflect local eating patterns. Walking back to our hotel in San Marco at the end of a day exploring Venice’s gorgeous canals and lanes, we’d pass visitors already tucking into dinner. By the time we were finishing our meal, restaurants were empty. In Dorsoduro, where there were more locals, restaurants were still buzzing long after we’d thrown our napkins into the ring.
Experiences in Croatia and Greece have been similar to those in Italy, flavoured by the same laid-back Mediterranean personality when it comes to food.
Buen provecho Spain
The whole approach to eating out in Spain suits me right down to the ground – exuberant, fun, relaxed, fabulously diverse gastronomy (especially in the likes of Catalonia) and with elasticated opening hours… as long as you don’t want to eat dinner in the late afternoon. As mentioned earlier, in big towns in some countries we’ve struggled to find a restaurant after 9pm. Yet we turned up in a quiet neighbourhood in a small town on the smallest Canary Island, El Hierro, at 11pm, wandered into a tapas bar and asked if they were still serving food. The reply was a “si, claro” (yes, of course) as though we’d asked a silly question. That one example typifies much of what I love about eating out in Spain.
Another country where dining out is fun, the food is diverse, and the opening hours are flexible enough to keep a mixed bag of people happy. We’ve eaten in restaurants in the north of Portugal, along the border with Spain, in central parts, and in the south. Never once have we struggled to find a restaurant whenever we wanted to eat, even in remote, rural areas.
The example I used as an opener was in Portugal. Although the restaurant was frequented nearly exclusively by locals, it opened at a time which would keep early diners happy… even though they might find themselves dining alone.
Ultimately if we want to dine like a local when we travel we have to adjust our eating patterns to the local appetite. In some countries that means letting the stomach grumble for an hour or two longer than usual. In others that means waking it up when it’s still snoozing off lunch, otherwise not only will you not get to dine with the locals, you won’t get to eat at all.