Home » FOOD AND DINING » Tableside with Rick Steves

Tableside with Rick Steves

The iconic travel guru talks ritual, food politics, and culinary memories

Rick Steves on the Rhine River in Germany

Rick Steves on the Rhine River in Germany

Over the last 20 years, travel guru Rick Steves has awed us with the sights and sounds of Europe. His PBS shows, myriad guidebooks, blog, website, and radio appearances have all opened up the Continent to exploration—while at the same time educating us on history and culture an ocean away.

Rick Steves believes that food is central to any adventure in Europe—not just a singular meal, but the holistic experience of dining in unique environs. Between treks abroad, DiningOut spoke with Steves about some of these experiences, along with the “Starbucksification” of coffeehouses, his take on airline food, and a typical lunch at home in Edmonds, Washington.

Just flipping through your guidebooks, it would seem that cultural and historic sites lead the content, with food folded in. What’s the process for picking the restaurants you showcase?

There are several factors I consider. Some stops merit a lot of energy and attention, while other stops less so—and not just because of what’s on the menu. A lot of it has to do with proximity to high-profile sites or locations I’m featuring, or if certain restaurants are near hotels. Sometimes they’re destinations in their own right, and then I make it a point to include them.

Does your research lean heavily on existing guides and resources, then?

To an extent. There are a lot of food blogs and crowd-sourcing options online now. But I rely on tips from travelers and feedback from hoteliers and local tour guides. Those are my best sources, actually.

I have to consider all suggestions carefully—advice from locals is good, but not always good for my readers. They might be giving me the best options for food in the area, but I’ve got to consider a mix of other things: cost, accessibility, the ratio of tourists to locals, if it’s a good option for a given season, and so forth. I’m not just asking, “Does a tourist want the best schnitzel and wurst in Vienna?” I’m asking a whole host of other questions that revolve around diet, convenience, and interest.

You’ve said that your trips are very tightly scheduled, which doesn’t leave much time for enjoying the local food scene. What does mealtime look like for you when you’re filming?

It’s go, go, go all the time. I like to eat out, sure, but I can accomplish a lot more by roaming around and talking to other folks who are eating out. I often spend hours taking notes based on those interviews, then end up grabbing a quick bite on the way back to my hotel.

I do occasionally get a chance to enjoy a good meal, however. I love to spend the day picking restaurants for my show or books, then circling back around to my favorite in the evening. I’ll grab a table, sit down, and ask the chef to bring me whatever they like. It’s wonderful.

Do you ever bring friends or family with you to dig into some of the local culinary specialties?

Not often, no. When I travel for work, I like traveling alone. And to be honest, I’m no foodie. I don’t know the difference between good olive oil and bad olive oil. That being said, I can recognize restaurants that fit my readers. Many places are worth waiting for, but the reality is my readers are thankful for restaurant listings that fit a host of different criteria—quirky, romantic, economical, you name it. That’s my focus.

Though you may be no self-avowed foodie, surely you’ve seen changes in the culinary landscape in Europe over the last two decades. To what extent have you been privy to the globalization of what were once very regional cuisines?

Oh, I’ve definitely seen a change, but here’s what I’ll say generally: It’s hard for small mom and pop restaurants to compete with chains. The big chains offer quick, practical meals that are often ideal for local diners. But at the end of the day, they’re formulaic. It’s sad to see. For 20-plus years, I’ve been trying to recommend mom and pop restaurants, but they’re getting harder to find.

Rick Steves in Burgundy, France

Rick Steves in Burgundy, France

Does that shift mean you spend more trying to find them?

I’d say so. In the last 10 years, I’ve found myself researching restaurants a lot more than hotels—and it used to be the opposite. There’s a lot more to a restaurant than the classic elements a food critic would profile—it’s a holistic experience, which is why it’s important to me that I find good ones. What appeals? What’s accessible? What’s comfortable?

For example, it’s really frustrating for a tourist to go to a popular tapas bar in San Sebastian [in Spain] and not be able to order in English. Sure, the food may be great, but if it’s a really aggressive environment and inhospitable to folks who aren’t locals, tourists can easily be overwhelmed. So, finding the right spots requires a balance of several factors.

You mentioned the influx of chains, which makes me wonder how younger generations and convenience culture have affected dining in the EU. Do you see a pervasive “Starbucks phenomenon”?

Sadly, I’ve seen quite a bit of it. Here’s a good example: There’s a Starbucks right across from Hotel Sacher in Vienna, home of the famous Sachertorte. You would think there would be no competition, but Starbucks does brisk business there. They have a habit of picking spots right across from established, classic coffeehouses as a way to compete. Sure, there’s history and heritage right across the street, but they challenge it. And they’re successful because they tap into a go-go-go convenience culture. You would think Europeans would scoff at the idea of a to-go cup, but Starbucks offers it, and it sells.

Thankfully, some of local culinary history—and the ritual surrounding it—is still preserved in restaurants across Europe. How do you prepare for some of these rituals? Do you often get pegged as “the ignorant American” because you aren’t always aware of them?

My job is not to focus only on the quality of food and its authenticity, but to convey an entire experience. As I mentioned before, eating out in Europe is holistic. If I’m telling a reader or viewer about enjoying souvlaki in Greece, I’m not just detailing cooking techniques or spice profiles. I have to tell them what it is, how to order it, where to eat it, and how it’s prepared so they can identify it and order it without knowing the language. There’s a time-honored ritual to it, and I want my readers not to be confused by it but to enjoy it.

Consider something similar here in the States. I love a good old fashioned American diner breakfast. When I go out to enjoy one with friends, I’ll get quizzed on how I want my eggs cooked, if I want toast or a muffin, if I prefer sausage or bacon, and so forth. Americans take these little details for granted, but a European would be overwhelmed by them. The same thing is true for us in Europe, so I have to parse that for travelers.

To the point about stereotyping, I think waiters and waitresses do treat me slightly differently in Europe. Often, they’ll assume Americans don’t know the difference between dishes or ingredients, and so just give us the least risky, most basic option on the menu. That’s why I really enjoy going to a hyper-local restaurant with a friend native to the area. That friend helps me get the most out of a menu or kitchen, often making these the best dining experiences.

People don’t often think of the connection between politics and food, but as we’re currently wrestling with organics legislation and the importance of local sourcing in the U.S., I imagine some of the same is happening abroad. What evidence have you seen of this?

The Slow Food movement in Italy is fascinating—and it does have a political bent. The “zero-kilometer meal” is at the heart of it, and I love the notion of eating with the seasons. That’s something a lot of tourists have to learn. You want porcini mushrooms? Well, if it’s the wrong season, you’re out of luck. What diners should be doing is looking around and ordering what locals order—they often know exactly what’s fresh at a given time of year, and what local producers are offering. A local eater is so in tune with this, they can tell you the month it is by the items offered on their favorite restaurant’s menu.

Rick Steves shooting in Zagreb, Croatia

Rick Steves in Zagreb, Croatia

To your point, education about local cuisines is imperative, and there are several misconceptions about European cuisine that are likely worth debunking. What’s first on your list?

A lot of Americans create an image of a culture based on food experiences in this country. Often, however, those food experiences were built by immigrants who came from the poorest parts of European countries, eating rustic food of the lower class. Naturally, that’s not wholly reflective of what’s available on the Continent.

Oh—and I laugh when people expect Mexican food at restaurants in Spain, just because both countries speak Spanish. They are entirely different countries, after all.

What about hospitality? Though there are many traditions on the Continent, is there an underlying characteristic to European hospitality that is counter to what you’d experience in the U.S.?

Fundamentally, Europeans are not aggressive at trying to turn tables. Americans will often rate a restaurant based on the speed of service. But in Europe, fast service is bad service. People are happy to come and spend the night at a restaurant. I love that.

Obviously, you fly a lot and have eaten your fair share of airline food. Any that hews remotely close to authentic European cuisine? [Laughs] Not at all. If the food is uniformly warm and includes some nice vegetables, I’m happy. But I don’t expect much beyond traveling 600mph in the right direction.

Rick Steves dining in Spain

Rick Steves dining in Spain

Let’s talk about dining stateside for a second. What’s your experience of European restaurants in the U.S.? Are there several you enjoy?

I love Italian food, but truth be told, I don’t like going to Italian restaurants in the U.S. It’s not because I’m too sophisticated, but the ambience is difference. One of the intangibles in Italian restaurants is the sensory experience: the colorful clientele, the patina of age, the constant chatter, the sound of the knives whipping through freshly baked loaves of bread. You can’t recreate that in an American restaurant. What you often end up with is the boisterousness of a German beer hall and a hodgepodge of cultural clichés that don’t do the experience justice. You can recreate the food, but you can’t recreate the ambience.

You’ve called on the holistic experience of dining in Europe often. Is there a fond memory of a meal worth sharing?

I’m not sure I can highlight one, but many leave me with beautiful memories. Whenever I have a full-blown Italian dinner with multiple courses and unending glasses of liquor, for example, I can really see the value in spending three or four hours at a meal. It’s an experience. And when the rush of dinner ends, the chef will often come out and chat over a glass of this or that. I find that they really luxuriate in the fun people are having because of their cooking.

That experience extends into the evening. One of my favorite things to do after an epic meal is to walk back to my hotel and take in the quiet scenes of a village at night. Several times now, I’ve spotted a chef docked in a chair outside their restaurant, sipping a glass of wine or liqueur and puffing on a cigarette. I can wander for a mile and see three or four chefs, satisfied after a long and rewarding day of cooking, doing the same thing. It’s all part of the European culture of food and dining—something you just don’t see in the U.S.

Last but not least: If traveling to Europe is work for you, what does vacation look like?

Honestly, I love my work so I don’t take a lot of vacation time. I love to be home and settled in a routine. I often joke about it, actually. When I’m in Edmonds, I have the same thing for lunch every day at the same restaurant: chicken tostada, cranberry juice, and two salsas.

For more information about Rick Steves and his many programs and guidebooks, visit ricksteves.com.

—Interview by Jeffrey Steen