The Educated Diner: Lessons on Eating Out

No matter the size of the city, or its culinary reputation, I firmly believe that poor restaurants far outnumber good ones.

Of course, it only serves to complicate things when the city is packed with exceptional places to eat: not only do you have to weed through the less-desirable stuff, you've also got to choose between an endless array of appealing options.

So whether you're a visitor, a newbie, or a home-grown Torontonian, deciding on where to eat can be tricky. To help make this murky process a little easier, I've composed a few tips that will help you decipher the bad from the good, and still get a taste of Toronto's vibrant, if overwhelming, eating opportunities.

1. Educate yourself. Walking into a random restaurant is a gamble that seldom pays off. But that doesn't mean you've got to stick with the same old standards. There's plenty of guidance out there to help you explore strange, new epicurean worlds. Be wary of advertorial magazines and touristy books, and instead pay attention to the plethora of information coming in from diverse sources. (Chowhounds Toronto, for example, is probably my favourite place to get the inside scoop on where to eat.) In addition, consult friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances regularly for their restaurant experiences. Watch for interesting articles in local newspapers and magazines. In short, keep your eyes and ears open for the down-low on where to go (and where to avoid). Keep track of the names, locations, and interesting details (such as signature dishes) of the places that peak your interest, and you'll be prepared for nearly any craving or event.

2. Be critical. While you have little choice but to rely on the opinions of others before taking the plunge, you'll want to take them with a grain of salt. Every restaurant experience is different - and even the most respectable restaurant can have an off night. More importantly, consider the source. A recommendation won't mean much if it comes from your culinary opposite.

3. Explore. Once armed with a little information, it's time to open your mind. In order to enjoy the full extent of Toronto's diverse restaurant culture, you must be willing to get out of your own neighbourhood and try new things. Mixing it up with culture, community, and price range is the only way to get the full benefit of dining out.

4. Approach with caution. Even if you've already armed yourself with recommendations, you'll still want to approach a new place with mild caution. If you're stopping in off the street, look for restaurants that aren't empty (long lines are usually long for a reason). While you're checking out menus, beware of those that sprawl randomly across the map. The best places know their specialties and strengths and tend to exude a degree of authenticity and consistency. (For example, most generic "Asian" restaurants are simply marketing to the masses; if you want Thai food, you're better off going to a noted Thai restaurant, and so on.)

5. Enjoy! Meals out are sometimes disappointing. But rather that letting an unsavoury experience spoil your appetite, try to enjoy the process of developing your palate - and, if you're lucky, uncovering new delights. Finding a new favourite is indeed amoung the most satisfying experiences a restaurant-goer can uncover. After the meal, share the wealth - inspire your friends and family with your newfound knowledge, and set them on the same cycle of discovery.

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