I experience travel destinations largely through my stomach. My husband says that it took time to get used to traveling with me because I'm always up for a snack. Regardless of the time of day, if we pass by interesting street food or a bakery or a market, I always stop for a bite, especially if I see something i've never had.
Before we had kids, we dined at some of the world's great restaurants. Places like Arpege in Paris, San Dominico in the Italian countryside, and Daniel in New York. So you'd think that traveling with the kids would really put a crimp in my style & bum me out.
Not for a second. While we're not above eating a lengthy meal at Robuchon while E sleeps in his stroller, or having dinner with a baby carrier hidden safely under the table (don't worry, we pick up the baby if he or she wakes up, but our kids were both reliable sleepers), high-end dining never really defined my eating experience when we traveled. I enjoyed it, and I miss it now, but to a large extent, restaurants that operate on the world dining scene don't really reflect the local culture, the local ingredients, or have a deep connection with place.
The fact is that constraints are good. Constraints force you to focus. My fear of being dragged into the equivalent of Denny's or McDonald's everywhere we go forces me to seek out and try small local places. Places like Pinotxo, a bustling bar in the Boqueria Market in Barcelona. Putting our order in at the crowded bar took some work, but we ate some of best and freshest ceviche I've ever had. Pinotxo's chickpeas made me want seconds (and I normally think that chickpeas are vile slimy little beans whose only service to humanity is to be ground beyond recognition and mixed with garlic, olive oil and sesame).
Needing to serve quick and easy meals to our 1-yr old in our Rome apartment pushed us into a butcher shop in the Campo Dei Fiori that sold us deceptively simple looking pre-made meatballs. To this day, I'm trying to recreate those meatballs at home.
Even better, my quest to find accommodations with a kitchen has meant I can buy and experiment with interesting ingredients from the market instead of dreaming about it. In Paris, with a 6-month old, I made daily trips to the local market and the food hall of the nearby Bon Marche. I also came home with delicious local berries, fabulous juices, fresh bread, apple tarts, and anything else that caught my eye. What foodie wouldn't want a vacation like that?
So, no, traveling with our kids hasn't meant a McDonalds World Tour, though there was that moment of desperation in Sevilla when, for the first time ever, we put a Happy Meal in front of our 2½-year old son. He was offended by the sub-par chicken nuggets and just ate the fries. We haven't been tempted since.
I'll be writing more this week about how I find great places to eat with kids when we travel.Related Links:
Meals and Snacks on a Family Vacation
TastingMenu.com: Dining Out With Young Children
Reader Questions: Eating With Kids in Paris