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Why You Should Eat At Tourist Trap Restaurants (And 10 really good ones)

Sometimes, it’s okay to follow the beaten path. There are reasons why you should eat at tourist trap restaurants, especially if it’s the 10 on this list that we love.

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A woman eating a biscuit with the words "Why You Should Eat At The Tourist Trap Restaurants" digitally written above her.

We were planning a trip to Hilton Head Island a few years ago, and I told Pete I was so excited to try The Salty Dog. Twenty or so years ago, my aunt had gone on vacation and brought me back a shirt from The Salty Dog Café. Two decades later and I still wear it all the time. “I know it,” Pete said. “The one with the dog in the yellow hat.” Yup! That’s the one.

So we get to Hilton Head in the middle of a rainstorm. We check in to our room, shower off the thunderstorm, and decide to go to The Salty Dog for dinner. But first, we stop at the concierge because the Internet isn’t working in our room and I blog for a living.

While we’re waiting, I hear the concierge tell a father and son, “Don’t go there to eat. Just go and purchase some souvenirs and eat somewhere else.”

When it’s our turn, I ask if he told them not to eat at The Salty Dog. He says yes, then suggests somewhere else for us to dine as well. He then hands me a piece of paper with a list of restaurants where we can save 10% if we show our resort key. The only catch: The Salty Dog isn’t on the list. We thank him and, when we’re out of earshot, I ask Pete if we should change our plans. He said no.

Why You Should Always Eat At The Tourist Stops

Pete and I like local restaurants. We often support the little, local guy when it comes to eating. When we go to Myrtle Beach, we eat at our absolute favorite hole in the wall Mexican joint. If we go out to eat in town, we generally don’t pick the chain restaurant or the place we’ve been to before.

But when you’re on vacation, that’s a different story.

We actually were visiting friends and found an incredible Thai restaurant in their town — that they had never heard of — because of a food app.

But when you’re on vacation in tourist towns, you often are surrounded by tourist traps: seafood buffets with extra large crab sculptures in front, stores with sharks and surfboards that create perfect Instagram shots, restaurants with subpar food but tons of television time.

You want to avoid them. You want to shop local and support the little guy. But just like cliches are cliches for a reason, so, too, are these tourist stops.

But they’re also great conversation topics.

Most people who have been to Hilton Head Island, I would guess, have been to The Salty Dog, just like most people who have been to Wilmington, NC (where we live) have been to the fountain where One Tree Hill and Dawson Creek filmed. And people who find out we’re from Wilmington ask if we’ve been there.

Yes, we say. We go every Friday because there’s a free concert on the water there. Also, we took our wedding photos at that very fountain. And people get excited and amazed, much more than if I tell them about my favorite cup of French onion soup from the local restaurant around the corner.

Here’s the thing, though. When you’re on vacation, you’re allowed to be a tourist. You don’t have to be holier than thou all the time. You don’t always have to travel the road less traveled. Sometimes, you can stop at the café you saw in a movie or the restaurant you’ve had a shirt from for twenty years. That’s okay. That’s exactly what tourists should do.

When we got to The Salty Dog, it was pouring. We ran to The Wreck at Salty Dog, the closest restaurant to the car, and requested to sit outside on the deck despite the weather. It was dumb and romantic all at once.

But when I sat down and picked up a coaster that said The Salty Dog, I smiled. After twenty years, I was here.

It didn’t matter how good or bad the food was, or the rain dripping from the umbrellas down our backs, or that this was a tourist trap. What mattered is I finally found the place my shirt was from. What mattered is that my heart was happy and a restaurant was crossed off my bucket list.

Sometimes, supporting your heart and your wishes is more important than supporting the little, local guy. Sometimes, you’re the only guy that matters.

10 Tourist Trap Restaurants To Try

Some tourist trap restaurants are just that: traps to get tourists to spend money. But some are really good and worth trying if you’re in town.

Our 10 Tourist Stops To Try Are:

Mi Tierra (San Antonio, TX)

The food at Mi Tierra in San Antonio is mediocre at best. That part of the restaurant is considered a tourist trap in my book. The restaurant markets really well, the restaurant is packed, the salsa is thin, and the food is okay.

But. The. Pastries. Oh my gosh. Go for the Mexican pastries. You can go just for the authentic pastry shop, which is adjacent to the restaurant, and I absolutely suggest you do. The line will be long, but it will give you time to look at all the pastries and candies and decide on one or three.

I was so happy with my Pan Dulce and picked up some pecan pralines to bring home to my mom as a souvenir.

Salty Dog Café (Hilton Head Island, SC)

I waxed very poetic about The Salty Dog Café above, so I think you’ve probably already added it to your Hilton Head Island to do list.

It’s in Sea Pines, an interesting shopping area with a nature preserve — and a few residential communities intertwined together. You can actually spend the day in that area. But when it’s time to eat, pick one of the Salty Dog restaurants and indulge.

Ivars Acres of Clams (Seattle, Wash.)

Ivars is a really popular seafood restaurant in Seattle, with a bunch of stuffy, overpriced locations. The food is good, but the vibe is off.

But Ivars Acres of Clams is so worth it. It’s casual, with a relaxed dining area outdoors, a great waterfront view, and Ivar’s famous clam chowder (which is the reason it’s a tourist trap in the first place).

Hyman’s Seafood (Charleston, SC)

Hyman’s Seafood has been a Charleston staple for over 120 years. Well, the building and the family operating in it. It was originally a dry goods store and has been a restaurant for nearly 40 years.

The food is great, including the hush puppies (which I honestly don’t even like). If you’re looking for seafood in Charleston, with a side of optimistic reading in the bathroom, this place is it.

But what’s great is that the restaurant feeds the homeless in the community with dignity. All someone has to do is come in during Hyman’s operating hours and ask for a meal. They’ll receive one, no questions asked. Read more here.

White House Subs Shop (Atlantic City, NJ)

Our favorite sub shop ever is White House Subs Shop in Atlantic City. The subs are gigantic and really worth every penny they don’t charge (honestly, they’re so affordable).

This has been an Atlantic City staple since for-freaking-ever. So you should go. Sure, Atlantic City is the Vegas of the East Coast and you could eat in casino dining rooms, but don’t. Get a sandwich. You’ll enjoy it more.

Hash House A Go Go (Las Vegas, NV)

There are a bunch of Hash House A Go Go locations in the United States, including two in Las Vegas. And I know, you’re like, “Ugh, it’s a chain; it’s a tourist trap.” If it wasn’t a tourist trap, it wouldn’t be on this list.

But, here’s the thing. The breakfast jaunt is so good. It serves incredibly large portions that are impossible to finish if you’re one normal sized person. Especially the chicken and waffles. But if you’re traveling with a friend who also likes waffles and chicken, get it. The tower of food is perfect for the ‘gram and for your stomach.

Pat’s King Of Steaks (Philadelphia, PA)

Pat’s or Gino’s. That’s the biggest debate in Philly.

My loyalty lies with Pat’s King Of Steaks. It’s my go to Philly cheesesteak restaurant every time I’m in the City of Brotherly Love.

If you’ve ever seen a show about Philadelphia, you’ve seen the hosts debate between the two. And so you know all the tourists are heading there to get a cheesesteak.

And you should too. Pat’s has been around since 1930 and there’s a reason for it. The cheesesteak is good. Real good. Especially if you order it “American wit.” If you know, you know.

Whataburger (Nationwide-ish)

When we were heading to Texas, my entire family’s group text was blowing up with, “Have a safe trip, go to Whataburger.” And Pete and I were all, “Thanks.” But we weren’t all that sure about the suggestion.

We went anyway because we couldn’t let our family down … and we quickly realized it would be letting our stomachs down if we didn’t go.

Whataburger is a fast food restaurant chain that makes burgers. It sounds like you should just go to your local McDonald’s when you’re home and skip it, but don’t. If you see one, stop there. Get one of their (many) limited time burgers and just enjoy the experience.

Once you go, you’ll realize why everyone says to go to one if you’re near one.

Do you agree? What are your reasons why you should always eat at the tourist stops?


Monday 25th of April 2022

Thank you for removing the *shame* of visiting tourist trap restaurants when traveling. I completely agree with your article! When I visited Florida, I ate at Cheesecake Factory and loved it. Years later, my kids still talk about their meal and, of course, the delicious desserts we enjoyed. Since you listed Whataburger, I will have to try it because there are at least 2 restaurants within a few miles of where I live.