Want to find hidden gem restaurants? Follow the business crowd to lunch.

by Сашка

People in suits will lead you to some of the best local restaurants in cities like Seoul and Stockholm.

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I’m a restaurant critic and food writer, meaning it is my job to eat and drink — and I have the Google Maps lists to prove it. For each of the 100-odd cities I’ve visited, I have a pin marking my favorite bakery, cheese shop, noodle place, cocktail bar, and, of course, spots for late-night gyros, fish and chips, and street vendors hawking scallion pancakes.

Although I receive a fair share of expert tips from friends, my secret to finding great places to eat is to turn off my phone, go rogue, and observe people who wear suits to work. For the past 20 years, I’ve had great success following the crowd — more specifically, the business lunch crowd.

On a recent trip to Seoul, I went to the financial district, so I could meander away from the tourist-ridden areas of Myeongdong and Gangnam, where retail giants and commercial chains rule the streets. I wove in and out of buildings and tracked people in business attire as they hurried to lunch.

Having stayed in the city for a week already, I was surprised to find alleyways filled with bars and restaurants that I had failed to notice on my self-guided tour of the neighborhood. With the suits as my guide, I had an impressive bowl of hand-pulled noodles with a mountain of fresh seafood for less than $10. On another day, they led me to a tiny restaurant serving a 130-year-old recipe for a delicious soup made from pork bones and served with “sundae” (blood sausage). I am itching to return, and I’ve pinned the spot in anticipation.

On another lunch outing, I slurped down naengmyeon (cold noodle soup) and even found a tiny bakery making a sweet red-bean bun for less than $1, something I would have missed if I had my head in my phone.

In Stockholm, the same experience of following people in suits also led me to some great discoveries. In the evening, city workers in Sweden’s capital stream out of offices and straight onto the subway, but if you’re lucky, many will venture out to their favorite watering hole for after-work drinks.

The key is to follow small packs of three and observe their body language: If they’re friendly toward each other, it means they’re out to enjoy the night, rather than to attend a business dinner, which can lead to expensive restaurants.

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This is how I found the coziest wine bars, which are slowly replacing the Michelin-starred restaurants that epitomized the high-end New Nordic trend. On my latest visit, I discovered some seriously ambitious Swedish chefs who have gritted their teeth in Scandinavia’s finest restaurants and are slowly trying to build a name for themselves with their own restaurants.

Bord, Brutalisten and Triton are just a few of my discoveries. I enjoyed slurping West Coast Swedish oysters on the half-shell and sipping Swedish Solaris while chatting with friendly locals who shared more secrets to their city’s culinary scene, such as having a bargain Michelin-starred lunch at Petri instead of dinner for the same great experience.

The art of following the business crowd does come with some caveats. You need to have a grasp of the city’s food scene to avoid misdirections to chains and fast-food joints (unless you want to sample that side of the local cuisine).

You have to remember that lunch hours are short and sweet in cities such as Seoul, Tokyo and Zurich; where the work culture is rigid and grueling, many do opt for cheap and cheerful eateries over high-quality locations.

If you enjoy traveling without a guide and still take pleasure in discovering impromptu delights, you won’t be disappointed at whatever you find. Isn’t discovery what travel is all about?

Michelle Tchea is a travel and food writer based in Europe. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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