Wandering any random downtown, trying to pick a spot for dinner, can feel like an elaborate game of craps. Not only are you gambling the $50+ for dinner, but you are also gambling your time and the emotional energy of your evening. Too often, it’s easy to fall into the trap of using arbitrary decor indicators (twinkle lights in July!) or an online review site (which assigns numeric value to customer experience without the finesse of other factors like wait time for a table or menu originality).
Fear not! Here is the tried and true method my husband and I developed over time for picking the best spot in town.
Read the Menu
Ok – I’ll give you more than that.
Menu originality is the single best indicator of a restaurant’s overall quality.
So, when we see a restaurant that looks intriguing, we will read the menu. We look for the following:
- Ethnic authenticity (hummus does not belong at an Irish pub)
- Original flavor combinations
- The fusion of ethnic flavors
- Fresh or local ingredients
- Historical heritage
- Chef owned and operated
Since we often split appetizers in lieu of dinner, we use the restaurant’s appetizer menu as our yardstick. We will not eat at the restaurant if any of the following are in the appetizer menu:
Fried Calamari Shrimp cocktail Mozzarella Sticks Buffalo/Barbecue Wings Quesadillas Hummus Guacamole
The last three items are allowed only if they fit the ethnicity of the restaurant. In general, we have found that restaurants that serve these items do so because an owner has determined that the items are generally popular and on-trend and therefore will sell well. Owners that dictate restaurant menu items without a culinary background do not have the imagination to create the kind of great flavor combinations that make a night out for dinner worth the money.
Using this method, and this method alone, we stumbled upon some of the best restaurants in San Juan, without the frustration of trying to cross reference Trip Adviser reviews with our street location. Our favorite discovery was the farm-to-table concept eatery Verde Mesa, with fresh ingredients so flavorful we had to close our eyes to enjoy.
Here’s to internet-free fine dining discovery! Cheers!