One of the great joys of travelling is happening upon a restaurant or bar that quite unexpectedly brings a beaming smile to your chops. A place about which you had the lowest of low hopes that unpredictably turns out to delight you.
In truth, such a spot might even be on your doorstep rather than in some distant corner of a foreign town and you rush home to tell your wife, husband or chum about your latest discovery. “You’ll never guess what, but you know that ghastly looking place on the corner of…”
Here are ten more surprisingly fine watering holes (see my original Ten Unexpectedly Wonderful Places in Which to Eat) garnered from my recent travels and even a potter a few hundred yards from home. I hope you get to try one or two of them and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did and do.
Tucked away in a seedy blink-and-you-miss-it corner of London Road, Señor Buddha is a miniscule beacon of joy. Run by chef-patron Lee Shipley in between his window-cleaning rounds it is best described as serving Spanish/Asian tapas – fabulous dishes such as mountain mutton stew, king scallops on cauliflower purée, tuna tartare with pata negra ham, sherry pig cheek croquettes and black beer clams. Great wines too.
La Trastienda del Mercado
You could eat inside Mercado San Miguel – Madrid’s version of London’s Borough Market – if you don’t mind crowds of tourists and parting with lots of cash, but far better to wander next door to La Trastienda. Enjoy glasses of Manzanilla alongside exquisite tapas such as pork loin with caramelised onions or pinto beans and partridge as you sit and pity the poor mugs in the market.
Yes, I know this is on every tourist’s route but that’s because it’s a Parisian institution and everyone should go there at least once. I’ve been a heck more often than that and love the grumpy waiters straight out of Toulouse Lautrec; the tiny drawers for storing regulars’ napkins; the hat racks; the simple but hearty grub and the simple prices (starters from E1.80 and mains from E8.50).
Lyall Bay, Wellington, New Zealand
This is Boho heaven. Part of the Maranui Surf Life Saving Club, it’s a funky, lively hangout for locals but attracts well-heeled weekending Wellingtonians too. Even canny tourists drop in, keeping an eye on their watches and the planes dipping in and out of Wellington Airport across the bay. The Big Bay Breakfast alone (NZ$20) is well worth the journey.
Krua Thai Classic
The food here is astonishingly fine, the staff delightful and the chef-patron charm itself. If you’re happy he’s happy and positively beams. They ask exactly how hot you like your spice and it arrives just the way you asked for it. Try the stuffed chicken wings, the grilled beef with garlic and the prawns wrapped in pandan leaf.
So unprepossessing is Mak’s, I’d never have dared enter if it hadn’t been recommended. Some argue that it serves the best wanton noodles and dim sum in all Hong Kong. I’ve no idea if that’s so, but I can tell you it’s bustling and raucous and you’ll be in an out in no time with a groaning stomach and a grin from ear to ear.
Hermanus, South Africa
Bientang’s situation is everything, perched as it is on rocks right on the water’s edge. Hermanus is a whale-watcher’s paradise and there is no better place to come and enjoy fresh snoek, salad and chips or seafood potije washed down by local Hemel-en-Aarde wines and gawp as the Southern Right whales frolic feet, rather than yards, away.
Nondescript, even rather down at heel, the Gulasch Museum is easy to miss. But don’t give up for the gulasch served here is a stew-lover’s delight. There is bean gulasch, pork gulasch, chicken (and chicken liver) gulasch, beef gulasch, veal gulasch, fish gulasch, veggie gulasch, mushroom gulasch, potato gulasch, sausage gulasch, chocolate gulasch and – I hesitate to say this – ‘Black Beauty’ horse gulasch…
This might look stark, plain and serviceable and just like any other restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown (if a lot cleaner than most) but the food is astonishing. Locals, pensioners and city boys line up to tuck into absurdly cheaply priced barbecued duck noodle soup, crispy pork, fresh king prawn rolls and stir-fried snow pea tips.
The Crown is a shining light in the culinary wilderness that is Hastings. A free house pub a few moments from the Jerwood Gallery it serves fine local ales, ciders and wines as well as such lip-smacking fare as ham and mutton terrine with homemade piccalilli, Kentish tomato, spelt and pearl barley arancini and wild mint and sea spinach fritters, not to mention excellent rare breed pork sausages.