(Bloomberg) -- When your job is to track the best restaurants across the US and beyond, the brief calls not just for a lot of good eating, but also a lot of efficient traveling. So it goes for Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurants editor at Eater and author of the just-published cookbook, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes, From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why it Matters.
The book doubles as a tempting guide on where to eat across America. And indeed, researching, writing and promoting it has sent Canavan on whirlwind trips to dozens of cities from the obvious culinary capitals (New York City, her current hometown of Los Angeles, San Francisco) to up-and-coming restaurant hubs such as Boston, Denver and Indianapolis.
But Canavan’s penchant for culinary travel predates the gestation of her book. Born and raised in New Jersey—where old-school diners and red sauce joints sparked her interest in restaurants—she started planning trips around food when she made the regular drive to Rhode Island, where she went to college. She learned to plan her drives strategically to hit pizza spots like Sally’s or Pepe’s in New Haven, back when their famously long lines were more manageable. Her earliest travel memories include eating rijstaffel in Amsterdam and frites in a paper cone in Brussels, both on family trips when she was in her early teens.
These days, her travels vacillate between global foodie fantasies (a deep dive in Japan) to tried-and-true family-forward escapes (taking her young daughter to visit her grandparents in Albany). Here are her best travel tips, shaped by her experiences of motherhood, culinary reporting and constantly being on the go.
There’s one kid accessory that will seriously streamline your packing.
As soon as our daughter met the weight minimum, my husband and I started using this travel harness instead of bothering with bringing a car seat on flights. It’s lightweight and easy to add to a carry-on, setup is fast, and since it has a chest clip similar to the one on a car seat, it’s a snug, secure fit for turbulence (or for a nap). Sure, you’ll need to figure out a car seat wherever you’re going; but in my experience, what you save in stress and hassle by adding a car seat to a rental (or, in the case of visiting grandparents, keeping a car seat there) is well worth the extra cost.
The one thing I don’t mess with is sleep—which means that I do literally pack my daughter’s blanket, pillow and white noise machine, so I can create a sleep environment for her that’s as home-like as possible. Sleep is just not worth messing with.
Google Maps should be used for way more than just directions.
When I travel, I like to maintain balance between having some lunch or dinner reservations and some unplanned meals. The goal is to give each itinerary enough structure that I know I’ll address my highest priorities while leaving enough to see where the day takes me. If you’re enjoying a museum and you want to stay longer, you don’t always want to feel under the gun about making it to this or that reservation.
The trick to successful spontaneity, ironically, is planning. My husband luckily enjoys doing this too, so we both add flags to Google Maps when we’re researching a trip. We figure out what activities will be the anchors for each day and then plot out points of interest that are geographically convenient, using a simple flagging system that’s built into the app. That way, when we’ve left the museum, we can open up our phones and figure out what’s nearby that we’ve already vetted. And doing that legwork is so much fun! It gets you excited for your trip.
Don’t DIY Japan.
My husband and I went to Japan for our honeymoon, and from top to bottom, nothing was overhyped. Eating sushi in the outer market at Tsukiji? One of my all-time favorite meals. Traipsing through a typhoon to see the Kamakura Daibutsu? Breathtaking (and yes, kind of damp). Spending a small fortune for a night at a luxe ryokan with an outdoor onsen so I could enjoy hot springs in soft rain? I’ll treasure the memory forever.
Generally speaking, concierge services in high-end hotels in Japan are way better than what I think you might expect in high-end hotels in America. Allowing them to help with restaurant reservations is so useful because they speak Japanese and many places don’t take online reservations. The trick is to take advantage of their service as soon as you book your hotel, rather than waiting until you’re there at the desk.
The best way to keep friend trips amicable is spending time apart.
My best friend and I have been traveling together, just the two of us, since we were in college: We’ve been to Amsterdam, Berlin, London … and now she’s a mom too, so we’ve been plotting family travel as well as a special just-us trip for our upcoming 40th birthdays in a few years.
Over time we’ve established our rhythms for traveling together. Of course, one reason we travel well together is that we have a lot of shared interests, that’s why we’re friends. But I also know that in the morning she always does yoga, so I give her space by wandering away and finding coffee, which I also find essential. One thing that keeps our trips successful is always making a point of giving each other quiet separate time.
But we do other things, too. We tend to agree ahead of time about the budget: Where do we want to spend less or splurge? We often eat breakfast in our hotel room using groceries we’ve bought together, to save money, and have clear expectations around sharing a room. She’s a good sleeper, so she’s comfortable that I’ll be up late reading or doing stuff on my phone, and that won’t bother her.
It’s also worth saying that I’m a planner by nature—I’m a go-go-go type person—but when we travel together, she will do some planning as well, and that’s so meaningful to me. It’s a tremendous gift that she gives me as a friend. It makes me feel taken care of.
How an insider tracks down the perfect post-flight meal, in any city.
If I’m traveling somewhere new, I typically plan my first bite there well in advance, triangulating the distance between the hotel, the restaurant and whatever I’ll want to do afterward. The perfect choice needs to be in a convenient location—which might be very close to my hotel, depending on what time my flight is landing and how hungry I expect to be. It needs to feel special, something that I couldn’t get anywhere else, but it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.
Our first meal in Japan—where we had to fight our jet lag to stay awake at, like, 3 in the afternoon—we knew that our hotel was about a 15-minute walk away from one of the best-known ramen shops in Tokyo, so we made that our first meal. The walk and the motivation of something we’d read about for years and wanted to try kept us awake, and we were able to walk in without a reservation. With traveling so unpredictable, that’s an important criterion, too.
In cities I go to regularly, I have that first meal perfected: In Portland, OR, it’s from Nong’s Khao Man Gai. A typical order includes poached chicken with rice that’s cooked in chicken stock and toasted in chicken fat, topped with a peanuty sauce. It’s nourishing and comforting, a perfect refuel after a flight.
You’ve probably overlooked the ultimate luxury in every hotel room.
My guilty pleasure is setting aside an afternoon to watch a movie at my hotel. I say guilty because my go-go-go, Type-A tendencies mean I often want every single minute of a trip to be packed full. But lounging in a comfortable room and just enjoying the treat of a midday movie? That’s when a trip becomes a vacation.
I realize it’s counterintuitive to do something you could do at home, but when do you actually do that at home, intentionally, stopping and picking out an old favorite and getting snuggly in a gigantic bed? It’s such a treat!
If there’s one word you learn in every language, consider making it “delicious.”
I always make sure to learn the basics like “please,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” “I apologize.” I also look up superlatives, so I can compliment chefs directly. Things like “delicious,” “awesome,” “amazing,” “best.” Even if I stumble on the idioms, nobody is disappointed to hear that you loved their food.
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