A new place can rise or fall in your mind based on what you eat. Which is why, when it’s meal time abroad, I’ve often relied on a technique I once learned from economist Tyler Cowen. The eateries that guide books recommend are usually flooded with tourists, which by definition means they’re often devoted more to speed and ambiance than to good food.
So Cowen recommends buddying up to a local, someone forced to spend time with you and whose interests are aligned with yours—someone who doesn’t care to pay exorbitant prices for food, or hang out with visiting tourists. Who better than a taxi driver?
When I arrived in Berlin, I walked out to the curb for a taxi. Selecting a slightly older driver is one way to ensure safety and some good stories if he’s willing to talk. It’s also the best way to find something to eat.
“I have an unconventional request,” I said after slipping into one car. “I’d like to have something very authentic and German for dinner. Can you take me someplace you like? Somewhere you’d go with your friends or family?”
He was silent for about a minute. Then I upped the ante.
“I’ll pay you the usual fare, and if you have time, I’ll also invite you for dinner.”
He smiled. He said he had just eaten. Then he paused another few seconds. He took a few quick turns. There’s always the risk that you’ll be driven a longer distance for a higher fare. Or you’ll end up at the restaurant that the driver’s brother owns. But most of the time, you’ll find yourself at a place off the main thoroughfare that you never would’ve found on your own.
We pulled up to the Schöneberger Weltlaterne, a place that on its best day might be described as a hole in the wall. Inside it looked like someone’s living room, strangely decorated and cluttered. Some American smooth jazz was playing and I sat at a table under a portrait of a young Barbara Streisand. Not very German, I thought, until I realized that hotel restaurants and tourist traps attract clientele with faux art and theme music; this place was going after people who didn’t care what was on the wall. (Although I later learned that the portrait was actually the owner of the restaurant). One server, a woman over 60, shuttled orders and food for the entire restaurant. She joked with some tables who appeared to be regulars. She brought me a beer without me even asking.
I perused the menu, entirely in German, and picked almost at random—a dish with a consonant to vowel ratio of 17:7. Taking the chance to try anything on the menu will occasionally—I won’t say often, but occasionally—be rewarded with something surprising. One time in northern Italy, my travel compadre Spencer ordered a dish called the Stinche. To this day we have no idea what it was.
What ended up coming my way was a thin steak, rolled tightly in the shape of a pair of socks. It was doused in brown gravy with a set of potato dumplings. The dish altogether looked a little like a happy face. Thick gravy coated the meat. The dumplings tasted like buttery clouds.
A meal like this was probably a little more Austrian than German. Germans have pride over many things, but it’s hard to find a full-throated endorsement of the culture’s food, which are heavy on the sausage. However German bread, when done right, is better than anything you’d find in a French bakery.
The economics lesson in all of this—my meal was 14 Euros (about $20) total—leaps out. Modest restaurants with good recipes don’t have large advertising budgets. They produce a limited supply of food and can’t afford for demand to either fall or spike. They want to keep out the tourist bus riffraff and loud foreigners to protect the locale clientele who will continue to show up. Polite but curt service is often the way the limited staff can focus on the food, the reason you came. If you don’t like your meal, you might leave so someone else can sit. And can you please not dawdle after you pay? The server, if you don’t mind, wants to get home to feed her cat.