Thanks to a tip from my writing guru David Hochman, I read a sweet little article by Catherine Price in O Magazine this morning about when she jetted off for a week in Tokyo and let the itinerary of her entire trip—from where to eat raw fish to a spa where fish nibbled the dead skin off her feet—be determined by the advice of strangers. I’ve been thinking about it all day, mostly because since I’m out there walking and riding the bus, just like many tourists do, I find that I’m often that person doling out advice about LA. (Or maybe they think I’m a tourist, too, since I most likely am wearing my Leica around my neck.) I love telling people where to go. I feel like it’s my civic duty.
But I also was struck by what some people might find novel about her trip—the fact that she traveled with no plans and little to no knowledge about where she was going. I thought back to the summer I scrambled all over Europe (you know, the trip where Gelatobaby was born) and how I not only relied on the advice of strangers for restaurants and museums—I’d go to entire towns and cities based on the recommendations of the people I met. I loved traveling like this, no plans, no itinerary, barely looking at a guidebook, sizing a town up in two minutes with a decision based solely on the design of its train station and leaping off into the blissful unknown. I’d choose restaurants only after a long, discriminating survey of the area on foot, rating them on a three-point system of menu typography, the availability of outdoor seating, and overall perceived happiness of diners. Of course it resulted in a few nights of eating bad linguine al pesto Genovese (I know, as if there was such a thing!) in a charmless restaurant, my face screwed into that what-am-I-doing-here smirk. But when I think back on it, those moments are just as vivid. And I don’t remember the pasta being that bad. And besides, even after bad pasta you can usually find decent gelato (see photo, top).
I thought about that trip many times during our recent vacation, when we also traveled with no guidebook and no reservations (check out my series from the trip: Summer Places). The world has changed a lot since then, and as Keith and I rolled into the first town we’d stop at for the night, we did something that I’ve certainly never done before: We checked out the Yelp app on his iPhone. Mostly, I will admit, because of the novelty—it’s kind of amazing that you can go pretty much anywhere in the world now and someone has already given it three stars and left some snippy comment—but also to try and discover some interesting place that only locals would patronize; Yelp is great for that. But as we aimed it around us (using the “Restaurants Nearby” feature), the app consistently delivered lousy advice. As we investigated the picks in-person, everything was too touristy, or too expensive, or was closed by 8:30pm. I realized that if I saw Yelp on the street, I don’t think I’d stop to ask them for recommendations.
Finally, we gave up and did it the old-fashioned way. We walked the street, read menus, compared prices, got a good look at who was dining inside. We finally chose a place in a historic building that had a long mahogany bar and served local wine.
No, the meal wasn’t very good at all. It was expensive. And kinda touristy. But we had discovered it, and chose it, and stuck with it until the end. And that somehow made it much better than it actually was.