The Parasites of European Tourism: Awful Restaurants in Top Spots

For any of the cafés at the Piazza della Signoria, Florence,
expect to pay exorbitant prices.

The greatest problem with going on a tour of the main sites of a new and foreign city is lunch. Where do you go, when you’re hungry from exploring a city that you don’t know very well, you’re miles away from your hotel and you haven’t packed anything to take with you? Occasionally, you find yourself going to familiar fast-food chains just because you’ll know what to expect. But when in Paris, or Florence, or somewhere with a good reputation for food, do you really want to be eating at McDonalds? So you try having a look for a nice restaurant, or café to eat and here comes the real problem: those parasitic restaurateurs that live off of the good culinary reputation of a particular country or city or region to serve you rubbish on a plate and charge the world for it.

Such restaurants and cafés are always to be found in tourist hubs, a pub in Covent Garden, the bistro across from Notre Dame, or the Al Fresco café in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. They survive because they get their traffic not from their own good reputation, but from the reputation of whatever tourist attraction that they are close to. As David Whitley of Grumpy Traveller has commented:

They know they won’t get repeat trade, they know people on holiday fritter away money at a rate they’d not dream of at home, and they know that the odd upset customer is worth the gain.

“And they’re always the places where service is worst.

But the corollary that no-one seems to notice about this parasitic practice is that the loser in the end (apart from the unhappy customer) is the reputation of the country or the place that is being so parasitically exploited in this way. So much so that, having visited Tuscany I can honestly tell you that although Florence is such a significant city in European history and although it has such great architecture and the Uffizi and Accademia are unmissable, the entire city is a giant tourist trap, and for the real Tuscan experience I would recommend nearby Lucca, which has its own splendid Piazzas, cathedrals and fountains and a significant and interesting history of its own.

And the real big-time loser in this parasitic practice is France. To the extent that you might find a columnist in Britain’s “The Independent” fatuously claim that British food is better than French. For an Australian who’d never been Paris, such a claim would be dismissed as ridiculous, just on reputation alone, even more so for an Australian whose experience of British cuisine was the pub-grub of north Hertfordshire. But for my part, as I had been to Paris, I could see that there was some credibility in the columnist’s claim. Unfortunately, France which, since at least the 50s has enjoyed a pre-eminent position in the culinary world, nowadays suffers from such a rash of mediocre restaurants that I can well imagine that around the world, everyday there are hordes of holidaymakers returning from France with a massive sense of disappointment at the much-vaunted “French cuisine” that they’d heard so much about.

A view of Paris from the Galerie des Chimères ...Image via Wikipedia
A beautiful view from atop the Cathédrale Notre-Dame 
de Paris, but I'm sure that there aren't any great
restaurants to be seen! Tourist hubs like the Île de la
Cité are no-go zones for good food and good service.
For Paris in particular, the world’s most visited city, with 45 million tourists a year, it is a particular problem, and having visited the city four times, I still can’t recommend a restaurant for my readers for a mind-blowing French-food experience. For that, I would urge readers to visit l’Alchemiste in Saumur in the Loire Valley, a place I never would have found were it not for the recommendation of my hosts when staying at Château de Verrières.
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JJ said...

I understand completely. I rarely visit the popular tourist traps. I have found the out-of-the-way places much better. Finding a spot down an alley, where the little old lady serves you herself on plates that don't match can be the best dining experience in Europe. Your story holds true for Spain as well. If Hemingway visited there, he must have eaten all the good food.

roxy said...

Really enjoyed this post. It reminded me of the trips I've taken where I found myself in this very situation. Feeling lost is part of the adventure. Luckily, my husband was always willing to ask a local for the name of their favorite restaurant. Following their advice was rarely a mistake.

Akseli Koskela said...

JJ, I completely agree. Plus, isn't it a great buzz when you stumble upon a "great find" in some out-of-the-way corner?! And I'm glad you mentioned Hemingway's Spain, it reminds me of Orwell's description of Barcelona in "Homage to Catalonia" where the practice of tipping was prohibited.

Roxy, you're dead right. The local know-how seems the surest way. We never would've found "l'Alchimiste" if it weren't for the recommendation of our hosts at Château de Verrières.

Judie said...

Our granddaughter just returned from a semester in Spain. On the weekends she and her friends traveled about, visiting other countries. She raved about several of the places they stopped to eat. Young people will eat just about anything!!