On TripAdvisor alone, there are 1,420 restaurants listed in Malta. Considering the population of 445,000, this is one restaurant for every 313 people – insane!
And that’s only the ones that are listed on Tripadvisor. There are surely at least a few hundred more that aren’t.
With this in mind, one might expect to find huge variety in styles, dishes offered and prices. But if I didn’t know any better, I’d say that around 500 of those 1,420 restaurants are run by the same chain.
Burgers, Pizza and Chicken Nuggets
If your idea of an amazing dinner is a pasta for starters and a beef burger for the main, then you can easily step into almost any establishment on the island and you won’t be disappointed.
Why exactly do the majority of restaurants – especially the more ‘traditional’ ones – offer what’s seemingly the exact same menu, beats me. What I’m after is good food, and luckily there are lots of opportunities for this, too.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that some places don’t serve great burgers and fantastic pizza. All I’m saying is that I don’t fancy having it 3 times a day!
With this in mind, here are my main tips for finding restaurants that don’t suck.
Stay Off the High Street
Generally speaking, your odds of finding a great restaurant hugely decrease when you’re “shopping around” on a high street. This is especially true for high streets of smaller places like Mosta, Attard, Santa Venera and many others.
The reason? Most of those smaller villages have only 3-4 restaurants, all of which have been there for tens of years. Consequently, many of them aren’t in the habit of changing their menu very often, and they mostly cater to the local population who – for some bizarre reason – seem to enjoy having toast, pizza and pasta all day, every day.
Your odds get remarkably better when you’re in a larger place like Sliema, St. Julian’s or Bugibba, but it’s still a hit-or-miss situation with a lot of low-grade tourist traps surrounding the few pieces of gold.
“If you’ve had several bad experiences with a particular kind of dish, then accept this, and don’t expect your 5th experience to differ from the first 4”
As with anything, there are of course always exceptions. A few of the best restaurants that I’ve been to are in places like Mdina (it doesn’t get more touristy than that!), The Strand Sliema, and even in the middle of Paceville.
Use Tripadvisor – The Right Way!
There probably aren’t many of us who don’t have the TripAdvisor app in our phone, and that’s great.
What isn’t great is that nevertheless, it’s easy to end up getting a sub-par restaurant experience despite a high TripAdvisor score.
Why is that? Simple. TripAdvisor, especially in a tourist hotspot like Malta, is used primarily by tourists and less so by the local population. And the preferences of tourists often significantly differ from the preferences of locals.
As an example – when visiting Italy for a week I’d happily eat pizza once a day. After all, that’s what Italy is famous for! On the other hand, if I ever moved to Italy, I’d probably be looking for more variety.
The same is true here. I’m not at all saying that the majority of restaurants would offer bad food. Not even close. The food is usually anywhere from good to amazing – it’s the variety that’s lacking. And tourists don’t care as much about variety as someone who might visit the same place more often than once a year.
With this in mind, when I use TripAdvisor, I tend to spend an additional minute or two actually browsing through the reviews to see what exactly people like or dislike, rather than just depending on the review score alone.
Read the Menu
This may sound like I’m taking the piss, but really – the menus outside are there for a reason!
And I wouldn’t be saying it if I wasn’t guilty of it myself. Often enough I’ve merely glanced at the menu outside, concluded that it seems to be “big enough that I’ll definitely find something”, and then get disappointed.
My new rule is to never step into a restaurant until I’ve spotted at least one dish in the outside menu that I would order right away.
Then there’s obviously the issue of hosts eyeing everyone who even as much as glances at the menu. It’s annoying – yes – but with a bit of practice in not giving a fuck, you’ll get there 🙂
My usual response to them is simple: “I’m just browsing, thanks.” And when they start listing you their daily specials whilst you’re desperately trying to read the menu, just go with “Can I have a minute reading the menu please? Thanks a million”.
Don’t Fall Into the Same Trap Twice (or 10 times)
Let me tell you a story.
A good friend of mine (SWIM – if you will 🙂 ), used to like Pasta Carbonara a lot. This was mainly because of an amazing carbonara that he had had several years back at this one particular restaurant. He went there over and over again and every single time it was great.
He then started travelling and ultimately moved to a different country. Missing the amazing carbonara, he ordered it at various restaurants at least once a week, only to get disappointed again and again.
In all likelihood, there was actually nothing wrong with the hundred-something carbonaras that he ordered and hated. They were perfectly fine dishes – just not THE dish that he so desperately wanted – which most likely was just a recipe that differed a lot from the traditional carbonara.
After nearly a decade, he gave up. He now only orders carbonara every so often and saves a lot of restaurant visits that would end in disappointment.
The moral of the story? If you’ve had several bad experiences with a particular kind of dish then accept this and don’t expect your 5th experience to differ from the first 4.
As an example, Americans may find the bacon in Malta (and in the UK for this matter) utterly disgusting, even though it’s actually just fine – it’s just a different dish from what you’re used to back home.
Coming from Estonia, I expect my dishes to be salty and saucey. As such, I don’t go ordering chicken breast with chips, cursing that there’s no sauce on it (in Estonia, there would be!) Instead, I order a stew or a curry and have an awesome food experience.
Writing this article, I realised that it may have come off as a bit harsh (as my writings often do). I just want to emphasise that I think there are many great restaurants in this country, and I’m sure the “500 chain restaurants” all have their reasons for offering similar menus.
But in conclusion, with over 1,500 establishments to choose between, you only have yourself to blame for ending up in similar places that you don’t like. Variation DOES exist here, it just needs a little bit of digging.
Do you have your own tips for finding good restaurants in Malta? Let us know in the comments below!