… The Search For the Authentic Dining Experience

They tell me that when you choose a Chinese restaurant, the trick is to pick one that Chinese people actually go to themselves.  That way you get a more authentic dining experience.

It’s not a perfect theory. You get lots of Americans eating in McDonald’s.  That doesn’t exactly make a Happy Meal fine dining.

But it’s a theory that Mrs Dr Brown and I tried in Chinatown in Manchester a few years ago, spoiled for choice by the array of restaurants.  We then spotted a fat Chinese gentleman walking ahead of us.

Now he, I thought, looks like a man who is no stranger to the dim sum.

And remember this is me saying that.

So Mrs Dr Brown and I surreptitiously started to follow him, dodging from lamp post to lamp post, mouths watering at the idea of where this hefty chap might lead us. 

We tailed him off the main strip.  Excellent.  Leaving the tourist traps behind in search of the real deal.

And we tracked him unnoticed for three of four blocks until he turned off once again.

Straight into a Bet Fred bookies shop.

Drat.  Not so much a crispy duck pursuit as a wild goose chase.

But we love it.  We love the authentic dining experience.

Or the idea of it.

On my gap year in China I was recommended a family run restaurant.  I casually cast aside my menu in search of the true Chinese cuisine, and asked the waiter to bring me what they would eat themselves.

Forty minutes later he returned with a Big Mac.

Still.  It was a new experience I suppose.

I’d never had one off a plate before.

So how else can you choose?

You can’t use something obvious like the menu.  Especially when you’re on holiday, a richly illustrated sixty-two page laminated menu is simple bragging about how big a freezer they own, not how good the food is.

And also tends to start the Brown family argument, the second line of which is either:-

  1. I don’t have set meals in mine. Where are you looking?
  2. Mine’s just drinks!
  3. I only have that page in Spanish/German/Thai! or (if the girl is with us)…
  4. Where’s pizza?

Even less dependable are the greeters at the front door. The restaurants can’t ALL be the best. On holidays I’ve been known to pick a restaurant solely on the basis of which of the greeters leaves me alone. 

There has been one brilliant exception to this. I went out for a curry with my brother in Brick Lane in London, one of the centres for Indian food.  We browsed the menus as we strolled along until one of the greeters politely pointed out that these were curry restaurants, and all the menus are basically the same so we might as well choose his because his restaurant was fine. 

They were, and they are, so we did, and it was.

Is there maybe a better way?

Should you go for a busy restaurant because it’s probably popular for a reason?

Nope.

Here’s why.

Again: imagine the well-travelled and long-suffering Mrs Dr Brown and I in Singapore.  We had a bus to catch at one, so needed an early lunch.

We went to the quayside strip of traditional restaurants, all of which were completely empty.  We ducked past the meet-and-greet chaps and chose one where the greeter seemed not to be trying too hard.  Not just the only diners in the restaurant, but in the whole strip.

A few minutes later another couple ran the meet-and-greet gauntlet.  Now, I couldn’t see the guy they were talking about, but I overheard her saying “That one might be good.  There’s a quite fat man having lunch there.” And they took a table next to us.

Five minutes later a group of four saw only one restaurant had people in it. Wrongly assuming it had something to do with the food quality, they came in and sat down too.

By the time we left, the restaurant was entirely rammed, with a queue for tables, much to the annoyance of the light-touch (and, as it transpired, quite grumpy) meet-and-greet guy, and not a soul in the restaurants on either side.

The final roll of the dice in my quest for authenticity is getting advice from the staff and going off menu.

“I wonder,” I ask conspiratorially “if chef has any particular off menu specials he might recommend?” I wink as if to demonstrate I’m not like all the other ordinary customers.

“You’re asking if the chef has any specials which are nicer than the dishes that we advertise on the menu for the purposes of selling to paying customers, that for some reason he chooses not to tell people about? For a restaurant, that would be a pretty curious business model, don’t you think?”

“I suppose.”

“Dr Brown?”

“Yes?”

“Please leave.”

2 thoughts on “… The Search For the Authentic Dining Experience

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