The Benefits of Eating Without a Map

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[Illustrations: Jessie Kanelos Weiner]

A few weeks ago, an old friend who was traveling to New Orleans for the first time emailed to ask me for restaurant and bar recommendations. I sent him my usual list—some personal favorites from the time I lived in the city, pre-Katrina, from 1998 to 2003: Willie Mae's Scotch House, Restaurant August, Molly's at the Market, and Dante's Kitchen—as well as newer places that have opened since I left for New York, like Cochon, La Petite Grocery, and MoPho. I told him to go to Shaya and Domenica, because everyone tells everyone to go to Shaya and Domenica these days, though I haven't been to either. I strongly advised him to grab a Grasshopper at Tujague's, and a Sazerac at The Roosevelt, then I reluctantly hit send.

The reason I say "reluctantly" is because I really didn't want to send him any recommendations at all. Instead, I wanted to send an email back that read something like this: "Go anywhere that looks good to you. Then let me know what you find." In other words, discover your own places to eat. Eat without a map.

It's something people just don't do anymore.

Thanks to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Yelp—as well as the countless magazines, TV shows, and websites dedicated to food (this one included)—we are constantly being told where to eat. We can find out what the hottest restaurant in San Francisco is by simply Googling "What's the hottest restaurant in San Francisco?" There are hundreds if not thousands of city guides, top-10 lists, best-restaurants-in-America lists, and best-restaurants-in-Dayton-Ohio lists to abide by, whether we're traveling to a city for the first time or going out to dinner in our own hometowns. It takes just a click or two to find someone's take on the best hot chicken joints in Nashville, the best chowder houses in New England, or the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago. It's all so easy, so convenient. But are we missing out on something?

I've spent a good part of my career working as a writer and editor for various food magazines and websites. Part of my job is to tell people where to eat, and where to eat well. That's not a bad thing. I take a certain pride in letting people know, for example, that one of the best dishes in Manhattan is the estrella pasta coated with sautéed chicken livers at Justin Smillie's Upland; that any visitor to New Orleans would be a fool not to tuck into a meat-bomb pho of tripe, pork shoulder, chicken thighs, and smoked greens at MoPho; that one of the best fish dishes in the Boston area is the swordfish pastrami at Puritan & Company.

But, while I'd like to think all the virtual ink we food writers spill on great restaurants, talented chefs, and go-to food destinations benefits everyone, practically guaranteeing you'll never have to endure a bad meal again, I also worry that it takes some of the fun and the adventure away from traveling and eating. That it detracts from your own sense of discovery; your ability to throw caution to the wind. To make the best out of an ordinary meal at an ordinary restaurant. To screw up. Or to find something truly special—completely on your own.

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If I'd been honest with that friend of mine, I would have told him that the best meal I ever had in New Orleans was at a restaurant that I would never in my life recommend to him, or anyone else for that matter. It was eaten in 1998 at a tourist trap just off Bourbon Street (I'd give you the name, but it never occurred to me to write it down). It was only my second time in the city, my first visit as an adult, and all I remember about the place is that it was mostly empty, that a kind old man in an old polyester tuxedo led me to my table. And, while the food was nothing more than passable, I'm still thinking about it 18 years later.

Part of the reason I remember that place so fondly is that it's the first place where I ever ordered red beans and rice, a dish, I would later learn, that's a staple of the city's traditional cuisine. A dish that, years later, would make me weep when I tasted it at a Katrina fundraiser in New York just weeks after the storm had passed. The beans at that restaurant were undercooked, and the rice was overcooked, and there were specks of spicy andouille sausage that I will never forget because they were the first specks of spicy andouille sausage I ever tasted. Yes, the restaurant was a solid C+ at best. One star. Maybe one and a half. I remember looking out the window at a crumbling French Quarter building across the street. I remember that it rained. I fell in love with New Orleans over that crap-ass meal. And I wanted my friend to fall in love with New Orleans over a crap-ass meal, too. I just wanted him to discover that meal on his own.

These days, whether I'm traveling for work or for pleasure, I try to make a point of spending at least a day or two doing cold visits to places I know absolutely nothing about. Sometimes it's a bust. Other times, it's just fine. But sometimes, I get my mind blown. Take, for instance, the gumbo fries I wolfed down late one night in Memphis a few years back. I had just arrived with a fellow food-writing friend of mine, and we were dashing around the city, frantically looking for good places to eat. We were Googling and texting people. We were searching the websites of the very publications we worked for, hoping for guidance. At some point, we gave up and settled on what looked like a touristy nightmare on Beale Street, called Blues City Cafe. Sitting in the booth, I glanced at the menu, smirking at one of the items. "They have gumbo cheese fries," I said, laughing. "And yes, I'm getting them."

Who the hell would ever think to pour seafood gumbo over cheese fries? Well, the folks at Blues City Cafe (which I later found out was once a branch of the famous Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Mississippi), that's who. And, holy shit, were they good. The steak fries were golden brown and slightly crunchy, just thick-skinned enough not to disintegrate beneath the heavy weight of the gumbo ladled over them. There was ranch dressing on the side! Digging into the dish, I lifted up what I now consider the Holy Trinity of late-night dining—a forkful of French fries, gumbo, and gobs of stretchy melted cheese. My friend snapped a photo of me, looking perplexed as I dug in, a picture that remains on my Twitter profile to this day, because that dish signified everything I love about being a food writer. It signified the discovery of absolute perfection in the places where you least expect it.

Those gumbo fries reminded me that it pays to take a chance now and then. If not, we'll all just end up writing about the same dishes everyone else does—the same places. The same chefs. Sometimes I fear that's already happened.

Traveling without a map has also made me realize that there is really nothing wrong with a mediocre meal every once in a while. In fact, once the expectations of a great meal are lifted, it's possible to enjoy that meal even more. Recently I visited Los Angeles for a culinary awards ceremony, along with some of my favorite writers in the business. All of them had strict itineraries to visit every buzzy, of-the-moment restaurant they could. On a shared cab ride from LAX to our hotels, I listened as two of those writers ran through a laundry list of restaurants they needed to visit.

"Are you going to Gjelina? You definitely need to go to Gjelina."

"I'm meeting so-and-so at Petit Trois for breakfast tomorrow. Are you in?"

"Are you coming to Osteria Mozza tonight?"

"What about Night + Market Song Saturday? Will you be there?"

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I was overwhelmed. Still, I went to almost all of these places, and while they were spectacular, I will save my praise and superlatives for another time. (Note: A solo breakfast over a crusty baguette and a café au lait at Petit Trois is among the most subtly beautiful experiences on earth.) What I want to talk about right now, though, is what was no doubt my favorite meal in Los Angeles. Yes, it was at a place I'd never heard of before; a place that didn't look the least bit promising, a place where the food was, like the children of Lake Wobegon, simply "above average." The most surprising part? It was at a Best Western.

After two days of palate-pleasing, gut-busting meals at God knows how many of the city's finest eateries, I decided to have a quiet supper at the diner located on the first floor of the Best Western where I was staying. Socially anxious by nature, I was in the mood to be alone. And I wanted to eat at a place where I wouldn't feel the pressure to be wowed by a plate of wilted water spinach or sour fermented pork sausage. I didn't have the mental energy to tweet about my croque monsieur, or Instagram a plate of oysters. I know what you're thinking. Tough life, right? I get it. Still, travel can be tough for the medicated.

While I expected little more than a hotel lobby–style restaurant, with bad carpeting and equally bad food, the diner was surprisingly cool-looking for a hotel chain. It had stone walls; schoolhouse lights; a long, Edward Hopper–style counter; and plush, 1960s-era leather booths. Sitting down in one of those booths with a pile of magazines, I ordered a chicken po' boy with trepidation, since, to me, a po' boy isn't a po' boy unless it's made with Leidenheimer's French bread from New Orleans. Probably more of a chicken sandwich, I thought to myself. But I was wrong.

When it arrived at my table, the po' boy was piled high with blackened chicken, crisp lettuce, and some damn fine-looking tomatoes. Biting into it, I recognized something familiar. Really familiar. That crunch. That pull. It was Leidenheimer's bread! It turns out that the chef had grown up in New Orleans. It turns out that the restaurant was pretty well known, too, having been featured in the final scene of the movie Swingers. So good was the po' boy that I almost—almost—Instagrammed it. But, while scrolling through filters, trying to decide between Juno and Amaro, I decided against it.

Instead, I chatted up the waiter. We talked about po' boys and New Orleans, why Los Angeles is a wonderful city, and why I should pack up my wife and kid and move there lickety-split. She said she thought she knew me, even though I was sure we'd never met before. Once I was finished, I stayed for a while, reading some magazines and drinking some coffee. I kept getting texts from my friends. They were headed to Venice for dinner at Gjelina, and asked if I wanted to join, but I told them I'd already eaten. If I'd told them I'd already had dinner at the Best Western, I'm sure they would have laughed, wondering why I'd wasted a meal. But nothing was wasted at all. I was content eating at a place no one had told me about. I was happy to be discovering something on my own. Because, when it comes to dining experiences these days, that's a pretty rare thing.