For some travellers, trips are built around reservations at restaurants with Michelin stars or a place on the annual 50 Best Restaurants list. Sarah Firshein of The New York Times reports.
In 2017, when Nora Martins was trying to decide between Japan or South America for a big fall trip, it was neither the staggered steps of Machu Picchu nor the snow-capped peaks of Patagonia that sealed the deal.
"My husband called me and said, 'I got a reservation at Central, so I think we should go to South America,'" said Martins, 34, a lawyer who lives in Long Island City, New York.
Central, chef Virgilio Martínez's restaurant in Lima, Peru, is currently No. 6 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants, an annual list that ranks restaurants worldwide.
Having secured a reservation there, Martins constructed a 10-day vacation that zigzagged to Buenos Aires; Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia; Santiago, Chile; Cusco, Peru; and the Peruvian capital, and paired boutique bed-and-breakfasts with luxury hotels like Belmond.
"We figured that if we're going to spend time in Peru, we should probably go to Machu Picchu. I'm glad we went — it turned out to be one of the best trips we've ever taken," Martins said.
There are many motivations for travelling: taking advantage of a school vacation or holiday break or pursuing cultural enrichment in an unfamiliar city. But for passionate eaters like Martins, there's no better reason to jump on a plane than a meal at a bucket-list restaurant.
For dining obsessives of this ilk, the annual World's 50 Best Restaurants list serves as a travel punch card — a roster of upscale restaurants that beg to be tried. The 2019 list will be announced at the end of June, and although the awards have been criticised for, among other things, their large number of corporate sponsors, a dearth of female chefs, and the ease with which restaurants and others can game the vote, they remain a global benchmark.
The Michelin Guide, also released annually, is another rating system that has launched a thousand flights.
Setting Out to "Capture the Stars"
Next week, Dawn Oates, ever allegiant to her quest to "capture the Michelin stars," will make her way from Brookline, Massachusetts, to the Faeroe Islands, a volcanic archipelago between Iceland and Scotland — for two nights. She booked a 20-hour flight after lining up a dinner reservation at KOKS, a Michelin-starred Nordic restaurant that has garnered international acclaim for its inventive treatment of Faroese ingredients — from langoustines to lamb — and unique style of fermentation.
"The average person doesn't necessarily hold the excitement of a dining experience in such esteem, and the average person doesn't really understand the lengths a foodie will go to grab that gold," said Oates, 47, founder and president of The Play Brigade, a nonprofit that works to create inclusive recreational opportunities for people of all abilities. "But this isn't any weirder than people who fly to Scotland and golf a different course every day."
Cementing restaurant reservations before anything else can light a fire under the rest of the trip-planning process, said Emily Koh, 31, who once arranged nine nights in Tokyo after making reservations at Den and Florilège, which both have two Michelin stars.
"When you buy the plane ticket first, you think, 'OK, I'm set,' and then you get so busy that you might forget to book big-ticket restaurants in time," said Koh, an account director at a New York City public relations and marketing firm that specialises in hospitality clients. "This way, you know you'll be eating exactly where you want, and you can pepper in things from there. You've mapped out the framework of an itinerary so you don't miss out."
When that framework is expensive — say, multi course tasting menus with wine pairings — some travellers find creative ways to save.
Six thousand kilometres for steamed baby eels
In 2011, after Renée Suen scored a last-minute lunch reservation at elBulli — mere months before chef Ferran Adrià's hugely influential three-Michelin-starred restaurant would close for good — she had three weeks to get to Roses, Spain, two hours north of Barcelona. Suen, 40, a Toronto-based freelance food and travel writer and photographer, turned her single reservation into a five-day pilgrimage that included fine dining (El Celler de Can Roca, Sant Pau) and unassuming cafes and pastry shops alike.
To balance a four-figure outlay on food and drink, Suen and a fellow food-loving friend used points to reserve a room at the Hilton Diagonal Mar Barcelona and opted for inexpensive hotels in Girona and Roses. They took public transportation as much as they could. And after their lunch at elBulli — which cost Suen 466 Canadian dollars NZ$525) — they hitched a ride back to Barcelona with one of the restaurant's sommeliers, whom they had befriended over the course of 3 1/2 hours and 45 plates.
"Some people can hang out and watch a movie; our activity happens to be hanging out and consuming copious amount of food," Suen said. "I have a pretty high metabolism and a hearty appetite. The detriment is that it's very expensive."
Yet data suggests that Suen's willingness to travel some 6,500km for steamed baby eels tracks with a larger trend. In a recent online survey of about 2,000 adults, Skift Research found that nearly a third have taken a vacation where a food- or drink-related experience served as the main purpose for the trip.In a 2017 OpenTable survey of 3,400 diners, nearly 66 per cent said they had planned a leisure trip solely because of the destination's culinary offerings. Also in 2017, in a Booking.com survey of 18,509 adults who have taken a trip in the last 12 months (or plan to in the next 12 months), 61 per cent said they select a destination for its food and drink.
"Restaurants have become part of the way people travel because restaurants are such a huge part of people's lives in general now," said Hillary Dixler Canavan, Eater's restaurant editor. "There's never been more interest in restaurant culture than there is today."
To really get a sense of one factor that fuels destination-dining, Dixler Canavan said, one needn't look further than one's hand. More than 500 million accounts use Instagram every day, and there are regularly more than 1 million weekly posts with the hashtag #food, according to the social media network.
"The flip side of Instagram FOMO" — fear of missing out — "is actually doing the thing. You see enough people you follow post about how great a place is, and it can definitely be the deciding factor in getting you to go," Dixler Canavan said.
Reservations apps have changed the game
The rise of online reservations has been another key factor. Decades ago, securing a reservation at a hot restaurant in another part of the world meant timing your phone call to coincide with opening hours — sometimes down to the minute — then hanging out on hold. In person, you might need to grease the palm of a maitre d'. Now tables at covetable restaurants can be secured online.
Of the 66 two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants in the US and Britain, nearly half are on OpenTable, the biggest reservations platform. Others, including The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's seminal Napa Valley, California, restaurant; Alinea in Chicago; and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, which all have three Michelin stars, are on Tock, the online-booking system founded by Nick Kokonas, co-owner and co-founder of Chicago's Alinea Group, in 2014. Resy, which also launched in 2014, has scores of Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as zeitgeist-defining, hard-to-get-into spots like Petit Trois in LA and Lilia in New York City.
And then there's TV. An early force in engendering the allure of traveling to eat, Dixler Canavan said, was Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations , the Travel Channel phenomenon, which Bourdain later took to CNN as Parts Unknown . Documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi , about a three-Michelin-starred sushi counter in a Tokyo Metro station, and Chef's Table , a Netflix series now in its sixth season, have both catapulted extraordinary restaurants right into viewers' homes.
In November, Christina Tobia monitored airfare to warm-weather destinations like Miami and Costa Rica. But it was the irresistible combination of Chef's Table , a $246 round-trip flight and the magical phrase "taco omakase" that got her on a plane to Mexico City.
Although Tobia, 29, associate director of digital marketing at Union Square Hospitality Group, had heard about chef Enrique Olvera through her restaurant-industry colleagues, it was a 2016 Chef's Table episode that emboldened her OpenTable search for Pujol, Olvera's upscale Mexico City restaurant that's currently No. 13 on World's 50 Best.
Reservation in hand, Tobia and a friend rented an Airbnb in the Roma Norte neighbourhood for about $96 a night. In order to acquaint themselves with the Mexican capital, they wandered some 20km a day, stopping to sample tamales and gorditas, rest their feet and observe daily life in parks, and browse antiques and produce markets.
Tobia didn't make it to the Frida Kahlo Museum, but she did consume an inordinate quantity of tacos from street vendors — about 23, she estimates. That research came in handy when, on the fourth day of a five-day trip, she sidled up to the bar at Pujol for a 10-course lunch that included several types of tacos.
"Understanding where locals go for tacos, tortillas, and coffee; learning what parks they love; familiarising ourselves with the references: that's what made the trip amazing," Tobia said. "Getting a sense of how people live, what they eat, and how they cook helped us appreciate Pujol's fine-dining interpretation."
Like Tobia, Peter and Lotta Schold are familiar with the ritual of pointing and clicking — so much so that they've become regulars at a restaurant that's six time zones away from their home.
Twice a year for nearly 15 years, the Scholds have traveled from Linkoping, Sweden, to Manhattan to eat at the three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park, which is co-owned by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, and is currently No. 4 on World's 50 Best.
The fact that Schold, 44, who runs a golf-club restaurant and catering business, has the words "Make It Nice" — the restaurant group's name and logo — tattooed on his arm does not guarantee him a reservation. And when the gods of Tock are unkind to him, he simply tweaks his travel plans.
"We don't have to have certain dates — whether we go in January or February, it doesn't matter. So we just wait until we get the reservation online, then we book flights," said Schold.
For food-obsessed travellers, though, the most coveted of all reservations is one at Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark, arguably the most famous restaurant in the world right now.
After years of taking reservations via a Danish booking system and by phone, Noma, which is co-owned by chef René Redzepi, now releases tables on Tock four or five months in advance.
Yet even in the age of apps, eating there is no small feat.
Last summer, when Reuben Kabel, 40, was unable to score a reservation at Noma, he planned his Danish expedition around the next-best thing: dinner at Relæ, a Michelin-starred restaurant whose chef and co-owner, Christian Puglisi, is a Noma alumnus.
In addition to savouring an inventive 10-course meal, where a vegan cheese course blew him away, Kabel, the director of technology for a tech consultancy and a self-described "giant food dork," loved the city in general.
Still, had he not gotten a table at Relæ, "We probably would have considered other places, Kabel said. "I don't know if it would have ruled out Copenhagen, but I needed to make sure we had that lined up before pulling the trigger."
Written by: Sarah Firshein
Photographs by: Maik Dobiey, Eugen Sakhnenko, James Estrin, Renee S. Suen, Veronica Kindbald, Peter Schold and Christina Tobia
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES