A Travel Secret Weapon
The True Hotel Concierge is a secret weapon.
While understanding the probable cause of the oft repeated line "never ask the concierge for restaurant recommendations", I contest it. How to use a true concierge is a powerful travel hack.
Sure most hotels are without a true concierge. They usurp the name. Sometimes it is to get kickbacks from local establishments. Sometimes because there is an employee just paid to do internet searches to answer guests' questions. Frequently there is a nice person who reaches for an out-of-date "book" of recommended touristy restaurants behind the desk. But a true concierge worth those elegant crossed keys on his lapel can be an invaluable resource. It is the difference between a men's furnishings counter attendant at J.C. Penney and the inimitable Jeeves.
It is important to know how to evaluate and make use of them. They are often one of the luxury privileges of the very wealthy that make their experience so different from ours. Because they routinely stay in places so expensive that the establishment can afford to have a smart, knowledgable, cultivated and connected individual who does nothing but find ways to make their customers happier but does nothing tangible (or at least easily measurable) for the bottom line. Sadly, even these places sometimes don't hire someone to do the job right and price is not necessarily a guaranty of quality.
There are some easy ways to find out if you've got the right sort. Do your research on restaurants, search the interenet, the wine spectator, etc. Read local language newspaper reviews and culinary websites when possible or use expat web forums about local restaurants when not . Then go to the concierge with the list and notes and ask him what he thinks. See if he knows places in other cities you know. You can tell very quickly whether you have the real thing or not. They may reach for a book or look at a computer screen. If they are very interested in the conversation with you their reactions could be useful because they really want to do the job and know about the local scene.
If they have strong opinions and know most of the places on your list and want to talk about them then you may have struck gold. A true concierge with a passion for the metier. Listen to them. They will know places and people you would never find otherwise. And people often owe them favors. (if you can, get a threeway conversation going between the GM, the F&B manager and the concierge, the place they agree on will likely change your understanding of your destination) They will send you to a great gastronomical restaurant that Anthony Bourdain will discover and make famous a year later or an amazing seafood shack cooking spectacular fresh fish on oil drums filled with charcoal.
Once you know you have the real thing they can help you to do so much more than find restaurants. Here is a hack within a hack; if you want to smooth your business or leisure travel in a new city or country, try staying your first few days in a great hotel with a real concierge. The investment can pay off if the hotel isn't too horrifically expensive. Then find someplace off AirBnB or couch surf for the rest of the time. Or even ask the concierge where you can stay reasonably and comfortably when you leave the hotel.
Do your research then engage the paragon of hospitality in conversation. They can help you profoundly. The more informed you are the more useful their specialised local knowledge can be. If they don't know the answer they will invariably know someone who will. They will make notes on your query and ask around and come back to you with detailed information. They may not even know they can help you but they can. The secret is a great concierge has connections and will often put them at your disposal.
This can go so much further than theatre tickets, spas and restaurants. Want to connect with the local real estate market, looking for local talent and want to see where the young techies hangout, find out where potential investors might go for happy hour? Need an introduction or guest visit to local trade associations or members clubs? Is there an easy way to have a museum or an archeological site all to yourself? Spend a few days sleeping safely on a beautiful beach? Meet locals or attend a wedding? Find a room in a town without hotels on the other side of the country where you can't read the alphabet let alone read the language? Find local students who might work for you as a translator? Get the current road conditions in an area where the maps online-or-off are never accurate? The best of these guys do these things for you superlatively.
This post is dedicated to that too rare and magical thing; a great concierge.
At the Four Seasons in Amman for knowing the best Syrian kebab stand. At the Four Seasons Mexico City for so many things, like helping entertain a local friend by getting us a table at one of my favorite restaurants and into the hottest nightclub party in town at the last minute ON NEW YEAR'S EVE. At the Kempinski in Hamburg for compiling a comprehensive specialized list of local commercial real estate brokers within a few hours. At the Marriot in Lisbon for knowing that I would love that newly-opened small wine bar that got me from 0-60 on Portuguese wines quickly. At the Hyde Park Hotel in London getting tickets for my father on the night of the show when none of the agencies had any more seats to see Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in Art. At a resort in the Yucatan for knowing where to get a great shrimp cocktail served out of the back of a truck in Champoton on the way to Campeche. At the Sheraton in Ankara for a place to eat unforgettable fish with Turkish army officers so far from the sea. At the Hilton Stucky Molino in Venice finding me great spots with no crowds during both the Biennale AND the Film Festival. We should have tipped all of you better, but hope you enjoyed the cigars, olive oil, wine, Black Forest hams (tangental travel tip when travelling in the middle east, where legal, or at least discretionarily possible bring a good European ham along, they keep well and you are sure to find some culinary-deprived expatriate who will be very moved bu your gift) or chocolates we left in appreciation.