If you’ve been to St. Mark’s Square in Venice, you’ll know that you’re guaranteed to be overwhelmed by the historic buildings surrounding it, swarmed by several dozen pigeons and – if some recent reports are any indication – dramatically overcharged by a nearby restaurant. Earlier this month, a group of Japanese students ordered four steaks, a plate of grilled fish and four glasses of water at the nearby Osteria da Luca, and then had some serious indigestion when they were presented with a bill for €1,100 ($1,366).
Three of their friends went to another supposedly tourist-friendly restaurant, Trattoria Casanova, and had to fork over €350 ($435) for three bowls of seafood pasta. If that restaurant sounds familiar, it’s because last November, it made headlines after charging a group of British tourists €526 ($623) for their lunch. (And the mayor of Venice made the city look even less appealing after calling the visitors “cheapskates” for complaining).
The students who ate at the Osteria contacted the Venice police, who then launched an investigation into the restaurant. The cops and various inspectors checked on the restaurant and uncovered a number of health, food safety and hygiene violations, and the owners are now facing at least €20,000 ($24,900) in fines. La Nuova reports that the city’s Finance department has a lot of questions about the restaurant’s receipts (or, more accurately, its lack of receipts).
Although this group might be fortunate enough to get their money back, is there any way to prevent being ripped off in the first place? YES!
When you’re traveling, whether in the United States or abroad, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself from extra charges, expensive add-ons or any other potentially unwelcome surprises that might come with an after-dinner mint.
First, avoid eating in tourist areas entirely
With few exceptions (we see you, Le Jules Verne), the best restaurants aren’t the ones in the most tourist-dense, selfie-stick crowded parts of the city. Whether you’re in St. Mark’s Square, Leicester Square in London or in New York’s own Times Square, the most visible dining options are almost guaranteed to be overpriced, overcrowded and underwhelming.
Next, do some research
When you’re tired and hangry after a morning of sightseeing, it can be tempting to walk into the first place with an open door and a working oven. But it’s worth taking a second to look that place up on TripAdvisor, Google or other crowdsourced rating sites. (And if you’re abroad and don’t have phone service, buying a coffee to borrow some Wi-FI can be a worthwhile tradeoff). Osteria da Luca has a 1.5 star rating on TripAdvisor, with reviews titled “Worst place in the world” and “AVOID AT ALL COST!!!!!!!!!!” (Those ten exclamation points mean business). And Trattoria Casanova isn’t much better, with a 2.0 star rating and several reviews that include the word “Fraud!”
A lot of major cities are featured on Time Out or have other online publications that love to make lists of the best eateries, and those are worth bookmarking before you leave town. (On a recent trip to Toronto, BlogTO was indispensable for lunch, dinner and finding some crucial mid-afternoon espresso).
Don’t be afraid to leave
If you sit down and the menu looks confusing, if the staff can’t (or won’t) answer any questions you have, or if the vibe just seems weird, walk out before someone takes your drink order. You’ll never see the staff again and some other sucker will fill your seat before you’ve shooed two pigeons away from your face.
Ask for advice
Whether that means sending your Airbnb host an email, asking for suggestions on social media or leaning over to the next table at that coffee shop, ask where the best places to eat are, whether in the city itself or close to whichever attraction you’ll check out later that afternoon. As eager as people are to share their positive experiences, they’ll be equally enthusiastic about telling you about that time they had to empty their bank account to pay for a cheeseburger.
There might be steaks that are worth paying several hundred bucks for, but there’s no way they’re in that overcrowded tourist trap.