Philip Hensher: Simple rules for eating abroad

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The Independent Online

I have been bouncing around from one bit of Europe to another for the last few weeks, finally doing, in a grown-up but rather unplanned way, the student Interrail tour. A few times, we've found ourselves in an unfamiliar town, tired and hungry. Where are you going to eat? Of course, you could just eat out of the cuisine gastronomique section of your guide book. But you'll quickly bankrupt yourself, and it probably won't be that good anyway. Here are my tried-and-tested sociological/gastronomic principles for identifying a good'un.

Anywhere with a gentleman outside it inviting you in is going to be rubbish. If, at the same time, he is pointing to a cabinet of fish on a bed of ice, no further discussion is necessary. You might like to look at the menu outside. It used to be demonstrably true that any restaurant which translated its menu into English was not worth going into, but some quite good places do this now (you read the words menu touristique, on the other hand, and you keep on walking).

If the menu is presented in four or more languages, avoid like the plague. This advice is doubled if there is a dinky little national flag at the top of each successive translation. It does suggest that they are aiming for a clientele so stupid that they can't recognise their own language in written form, and hope for one so slow that they won't be able to distinguish a pancake from a table napkin.

Don't eat anywhere with photographs of the food in the window. It is only going to lead to disappointment when the real-life approximation arrives. Similarly, a menu with over 50 items means a business spreading itself thin, and relying on the freezer and the microwave. On the other hand, a menu that includes things which you, personally, would never eat in a thousand years – brains, sea urchins, donkey – then you can trust the place. Eat something else, though.

The science of restaurant naming is not an exact one. But it seems fair to say that you should probably never eat somewhere named after a railway station. In my experience, a restaurant or a hotel which is just named after the street it happens to be in, or a proximate tourist attraction, such as an Albergo del Duomo, is very rarely any good. If they can't be bothered to be more thoughtful about something like that, will the food be anything but slapdash? Similarly, in Catholic countries, avoid anything named after a saint, which is just taking advantage of superstitious and unworldly people.

Look at who's eating there. (Not other tourists, ideally). Pairs of businessmen at lunchtime are always promising, and doesn't necessarily indicate somewhere overpriced. If there's a solitary old lady dressed in black, devoting her full attention to her food, you're on to a winner.

For some reason I've never understood, a restaurant in France which has half-sized net curtains in the window is often worth a gamble. A really spectacularly ugly interior can be quite promising. We once tried and failed to identify a single attractive object in an excellent but very cluttered osteria in Parma. The comfortable accretion of complete tat over decades is, I think, a good indication of sustained quality. Oval plates are a bad sign; oblong ones a sign of aspirations to culinary fashion.

I admit that, if you stick to these principles, you may well miss a few gems. But I maintain that you won't end up poking aghast into a stone-cold daube, and the waiter won't have spat in your soup.

Far more than just a boulevardier

The playwright Simon Gray, who died last week after a public and long-trailed decline, had a most unusual career. By the end of his life, he may have been more famous for his failure to get his plays put on, or, if put on, to attain anything he could regard as success, than for his drama itself. His plays, with their breezily raffish settings and often highly articulate characters, certainly dealt with big subjects. They didn't, however, deal with the approved big subjects, or approach them in approved ways, so he was, most unfairly, saddled with the label of a boulevardier.

His claim on our attention came, unexpectedly, to rest on what at first looked like sidelines; the volumes of mixed memoir and reflection which include Fat Chance, Enter A Fox and The Smoking Diaries. They are often bilious – few readers of Fat Chance will subsequently fall for the charm of Stephen Fry – and always hilarious.

The revival of interest in his dramatic work spurred on by the success of the diaries should continue after his death, but no writer can predict what he will ultimately be remembered for. The plays are wonderfully elegant and thoughtful. But the memoirs, idiosyncratic and full of Gray's urbane speaking voice, are simply unique. I hope his publishers bring out the whole series in a single volume; they look like classics in the making.

I'll drink to being more attractive

After a big drink and a half, you will find people more attractive. This truth, known for centuries by human beings from China to Peru, has now been confirmed by scientific endeavour. Dr Marcus Munafo of Bristol University says, moreover, that the effect lasts for up to 24 hours.

Actually, you really are more attractive after a drink and a half; glowing, bright-eyed and at that stage often sparklingly good in conversation. Given the obviously beneficial effects, one might have thought that the obvious conclusion to draw from this was that everyone should have a drink in company at least four times a week. The benefits ought to be obvious to anyone.

But no. Dr Munafo intones that "the findings are important because of the role drink plays in, for example, unsafe sex". Some people seem determined to look at the glass as half-empty. Personally, I like to remember that when I met my partner six years ago, we had more than a glass and a half to drink. The roseate glow can't have been entirely due to the Camparis; it has persisted ever since. Perhaps Dr Munafo's experience has been different, but I can assure him that many of the delightful people one meets over a drink are quite as delightful in states of complete sobriety.