Even the back window of a car can provide a tantalizing clue.
Andy S. asks:
Robert, how on earth do you come up with the unusual restaurants you review? In other words, where do you get your tips?
Dear Andy S.:
Excellent question, in fact one of the ones I’m asked most often.
There is no single source of information that helps me ferret out new restaurants, but instead I use a swirling constellation of sources:
1. Yes, I look at Chowhound, Yelp, and other bulletin boards on a regular basis, to see if there are restaurants that I haven’t heard of that look interesting. These sites represent hundreds, if not thousands, of avid eaters with their eyes open.
2. Free ethnic newspapers are another reliable source. You can pick them up in bodegas and beauty parlors in the neighborhoods you’re interested in. I’m lucky if these papers are in a language I can understand with the help of an online dictionary, but even if they’re written in Turkish or Chinese, I can scan the papers for restaurant ads, which often reveal themselves with pictures of food. The address and phone number, at least, will invariably be printed in Roman characters, making it easy to identify the exact location. I google the phone number to find corroborating sources of info.
3. I depend upon tips from readers who email me at the address listed at the bottom of my column. And I read press releases that hit the same email box — just because a place is represented by a publicist doesn’t mean it’s no good.*
4. I go to unfamiliar neighborhoods by train, car, and bike to survey the streets for new places. Typically, I’ll pick an area that I haven’t been to in a while. (Coming soon for a revisit, Tottenville, Staten Island!)
5. I do random googlings to try to nose out new (or old) places. Sometimes I fail: The city still has no Laotian restaurants, even though I search “Laos – Food – New York” as often as I can.
*Calm down, publicists! This is at least partly facetious. If you want to make me very happy, just mail me a menu.
Sometimes googling familiar foodie phrases or the names of foreign capitals produces results.
6. I keep track of stories in the metro sections of newspapers to find out where people of various ethnicities live, and then go there to look for restaurants. (Did you know the French have heavily colonized Fort Greene?)
7. I read all the other critics to see what they’re up to, and if a place sounds good, I’ll visit on my own.
8. I keep track of health department reports, because those are often a first line of information that a place even exists.
9. I query cab drivers to find out places they know about, preferably ones where they themselves eat.
10. I frequently inspect neighborhood-based blogs (EVGrieve) and sites that keep track of restaurant openings and closings (Eater and MenuPages).
Altogether, keeping lists of restaurants I want to visit takes me three or more hours per week, and I typically have a backlog of hundreds of places I want to visit. But the amount of research pays off in quality of the cull.