When you go on vacation, how much advance planning do you do for the restaurants you're going to visit?
In the past we've done varying amounts of research. For trips like the Carnival Glory cruise or our stay at the all-inclusive Dreams Cancun, we did very little. For both trips combined, I think the only research we did was to find places in Saint John, NB that had good seafood and/or poutine. Otherwise our meals were pretty much planned out for us and there was nothing to do. That was great in terms of relaxing our mind, but it was also choice-limiting because of the nature of the vacation.
For our trips to Europe, we've generally done more research. When we went to Amsterdam and Belgium, we went with a list of places that were recommended by various people, but no reservations and no set plans (other than a must-try list of types of foods, like fries, pancakes, etc). We visited some of those places but stumbled on most others. When we went to Greece, it was similar - a list of places that we could go to but nothing concrete, and mostly in Athens. In some places like Naxos, we had the name of one place (Lefteris) and just winged it for the rest. On both trips we ended up having some great food, some from our list but some that we just stumbled on.
Barcelona was a bit different. Most of my research is done on Chowhound, a site that I spend time on in bursts, but have generally been lurking around for over 10 years. Unlike the other 3 countries, the Spain board there is quite active. Not knowing much about Barcelona before going, it was completely overwhelming. So many names, so many options. I didn't know where things were or what they were near (I could plot them on the map but didn't even know what we would be visiting at the time). It was so busy in the weeks leading up to the trip that we had done so little research, both for sightseeing and eating. On one of our last days in New York, I went through a couple of posts on the board and made a page long list of restaurant names, but that didn't provide us much guidance on what to do either. They were just names. The only thing we did do, months before our trip (and pretty much as soon as our plans were set), was to make reservations for 2 of the high-profile spots we really wanted to go to - Tickets (the tapas place from the Adrias) and El Celler de Can Roca (the #2 restaurant in the world right now). So we knew we would get good food at those 2 places but the rest was kind of up in the air. Advance reservations were something we had never done before in our travels but Tickets books up about 60 days in advance (the same day the reservations open for that day) and we were incredibly lucky to get a reservation at El Celler de Can Roca only 3 months in advance.
At the end of our first full day in Barcelona, I felt a bit unsettled. We had been getting our bearings in the city and now had a better idea of the layout, the geography, the travel methods, and where things were. We hadn't had bad food during our first day but it wasn't amazing. One thing you hear about Barcelona all the time is that the food is incredible and like nowhere else in the world. We hadn't had that experience yet as we casually wandered into places whenever we wanted a snack. We usually resist planning our itinerary down to the minute or the meal (unlike some people who seem to go with an exact plan for lunch and dinner for each day), and see where the day takes us. But I didn't want to feel like we wasted our meals on places that were good but not great. I wanted us to see all this fantastic food that Barcelona had to offer that people raved about. I needed to do more research.
Luckily our hotel had free wifi which made this a lot easier. After we got back from McDonalds, I stayed up for a couple of hours (probably until 3 am or so) reading thread after thread about Barcelona restaurants. I skipped anything on the more expensive side and/or requiring advance reservations. I marked down types of restaurants, locations, what sights they were near (since we had no intention of running all over the city to eat), people's thoughts. I scribbled all over the paper with my initial list (since I had forgotten my notebook on the trip), realizing that I had some places listed 3 times. But we now had some sort of a plan. We had some recommendations. It wouldn't be the only time we did research as I did keep looking up more ideas during the trip. But we were ready to start our eating adventure!
Does research take away a little bit of the "magic" that you get from wandering into an unknown place and realizing that it is absolutely incredible? Sure. But if you only have a limited amount of time and you want to make the most of every meal, sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit of serendipity and take the advice of others. We still didn't plan that far in advance, deciding before each meal or (at the most) each day where to try, and going armed with a list of multiple places in case our options were closed or too crowded. But we did have some great food, as we'll get to in the posts to come. Not just great, but incredible and extremely memorable. Food that we still dream about today and that will likely make it onto our "best of 2012" lists. That made the research and the planning well worth it.
What's your travel planning style and why do you think it works for you?