Food tours offer business travellers a tasty way to sample the city
Can't face another mediocre club sandwich and room-temperature fries from room service? Consider a food tour that provides good eats, company and sightseeing in one easy package
Meals on the road can be one of the grimmer aspects of business travel.
Usually the grimness has less to do with the food quality than the whole experience – or, more accurately, lack thereof. Solo road warriors don't so much dine as face the nightly ordeal of finding a place "to eat." Too often dinner is a mere life function in a near-empty hotel dining room with a book or smartphone as a date. The other traditional choice is room service at your desk or on your bed, an even more depressing option.
But the growing trend of "experiential travel" is introducing new ways to lighten the night and turn eating back into a fun event. Food tours, which many people think of as daytime activities, are increasingly taking on the evening. But in either case the modus operandi remains the same: They act as a type of mobile culinary show, providing an entertaining guide who shares local history and heritage while leading participants on a taste sampler of the city. It's good eats, company and sightseeing in one easy package.
Prior to a Manhattan business trip, an acquaintance suggested that David Zitner try Secret Food Tours New York. The retired Halifax physician, who lectures at Dalhousie University Medical School and is a fellow at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, opted for the casual Groenwijck (Greenwich) Village district tour. The eight-person group checked out eight restaurants.
"We visited an excellent pizza place, an intimate, high-end, family-run restaurant and several smaller shops. Each provided a small tasting menu," Zitner says.
"Along the way the guide provided interesting stories about the people in the Village and the stories of many of the houses. Including where Bob Dylan and other beatniks performed and read poetry. It was delightful. The highlight was the personality, exuberance, knowledge and enthusiasm of the guide, and the comments by the restaurant proprietors."
Roanie Levy, executive director at AccessCopyright, tried a walkabout night-out dining experience while in Las Vegas. (Since she didn't make the arrangements, she can't recall the tour provider.)
The guide met the group at their hotel, the Wynn, and walked them to four restaurants. "Each restaurant was a different course," Levy recalls. "There was wine pairing with the meal itself and often the chef, manager or the owner would come and talk to us about what we were eating."
The highlight was finishing at a chocolate factory. "We got to go in the back and look at the chocolate-making process, which was fun and instructive and we were given chocolate. Then we sat down in their restaurant and had dessert. The experience was excellent. The food was excellent."
The best part, Levy says, "was eating in more restaurants than I otherwise would have experienced in visiting the city." She also appreciated not being rushed at each stop.
Typically, food tours are arranged so that the group walks to a prebooked table, where guests select from a representative choice of menu items. Time is devoted to eating and drinking instead of waiting to be seated or settling the cheque. Most run 3- to 3 1/2-hours duration, which means participants aren't out so late that it impedes the next day's business, but still have enough time to sample a comprehensive introduction a neighbourhood's best tastes and find a favourite place to return to on future trips.
The constant movement includes one other bonus: If you get stuck sitting beside a dud, you can always pick a new seatmate at the next venue.
Whet your appetite
You'll find food tours operating in almost every major city. Each tour company typically has several themes on offer, so you can find one that suits your tastes and schedule. Many provide drinks-included and non-alcoholic options, which should meet most corporate rules on acceptable expenses.
- In Chicago, the Sofitel Chicago Magnificent Mile’s concierge team recommends the World’s Fare Food Tour, which includes Southern barbecue, Argentine empanadas, Korean noodles and authentic falafel and shawarma. US$69; chicagofoodplanet.com.
- In Seattle, the Fairmont Olympic Hotel’s recommendation is Savor Seattle Food Tours, which guides guests through the 110-year-old Pike Place Market to the original Starbucks. Signature Food Tour of Pike Place Market, US$41.99; savorseattletours.com.
- Keeping to the market theme, Ottawa’s C’est Bon Cooking Food Tour is recommended by the concierges at the Fairmont Château Laurier. C’est Bon offers 10 tours, including a maple tour, a chocolate lover’s tour and a new afternoon Bikes and Bites Tour. From $49; cestboncooking.ca.
- In Whistler, B.C., the Whistler Tasting Tours’ Finer Things Dinner Tour is four courses at four restaurants. It begins in a 15,000-bottle wine cellar with instruction on sabering open a bottle of Champagne. The base price is $119.99, with a wine-pairing option for another $29.99; whistlertastingtours.com.
- Quebec City Food Tours has a five-stop taste tour of Old Quebec ranging from a rustic sugar shack to a former monastery, a bakery and a hip snack bar. Guests sample poutine, smoked-meat sandwiches, sucre à la crème and more. $59; quebeccityfoodtours.com.
- In Las Vegas, Lip Smacking Foodie Tours offer everything from a Boozy Brunch to a night-time VIP gourmet experience that includes a helicopter tour of the strip. Downtown Lip Smacking Tour, US$125; vegasfoodietour.com.
- Across the globe, Airbnb offers a variety of niche food tours through it’s Experiences program, in which hosts with specific knowledge lead small groups. Examples include sampling food stalls in Seoul and exploring London’s hidden tea gems; airbnb.ca/experiences.