Here's Part 2 of my "Top 5 Survival Tips": everything you need to know about eating, drinking, shopping and sports in the USA.
For dining out at restaurants, most major American cities have their own Zagat Guide. This slender, crimson compendium of a city’s best restaurants is like the Good Food Guide, but features more precise ratings, more candid diner commentary, and lists like “Best Power Breakfast” and “Most Romantic”. Check out their website to see if there’s a guide for where you’re travelling. These can usually be purchased at the airport or most bookstores.
Although the Zagat guide often covers chain restaurants and affordable cult spots like pizza parlours or taco stands, it definitely skews toward fine dining. Check out www.yelp.com for an extensive list of diner reviews on everything from coffee shops to casino buffets. MenuPages covers a handful of cities and features both diner reviews and thousands of restaurant menus, so you can check beforehand if it’s actually worth mortgaging your house for a spot at the French Laundry or Perse (or if the Chinese takeaway across the street from your hotel is decent).
One thing is universal: you must be 21 years of age to purchase or consume alcohol in the US. This is strictly enforced, and anyone who looks on the young side will be asked for ID (and often not let into a bar if they can’t produce one).
Where and when you can buy alcohol varies dramatically by state, with some laws dating all the way back to 17th century Puritan settlers! In my hometown of Boston, for instance, you can’t purchase booze before noon on Sundays. In Utah you can only drink at restaurants if you also order food. In California you can purchase wine, spirits or beer at the grocery store, while in New York you can only buy beer. In Ohio you can buy beer at the chemists (we call them drug stores). In Nevada you can buy anything, anytime, anywhere.
For more information, Wikipedia has an extensive state-by-state breakdown of drinking laws.
I’m slightly biased, but New York is the undisputed fashion capital of the US. Nowhere else rivals it for department stores (Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Century21), though smaller versions of these stores can be found in malls across the country.
The best part of shopping in New York, though, is its legendary sample sales. Anyone who ever watched Sex and the City probably heard Carrie reference these - it’s when designers clear out last season’s wares and sample sizes that might have been used on mannequins or in fashion shoots. Boutiques and department stores will also have them. Quality and quantity vary widely, but it’s very easy to get spectacular deals, sometimes up to 85% off original prices. New York magazine’s website has a good rundown of each week’s sample sales, and regular sales as well. Note that sample sales often aren’t held in an actual store, but in random warehouses and showrooms in some of Manhattan’s more industrial neighbourhoods.
If you’re not in New York, the website DailyCandy highlights the best shopping in major cities and also covers spas, dining and travel.
Consider yourself warned: in America we don’t support teams, we root for them - for reference, see the beloved baseball song “Take me out to the ballgame”. American autumn (September-November) is one of the best sporting times of the year, as it’s the start of both college and professional football (“gridiron”, but everyone calls it football) seasons and the baseball playoffs, which culminate in the World Series at the end of October. If you’re in a city that has a pro team, try to catch a game in person. Check out websites like www.stubhub.com for tickets to games that might be sold out on a team’s own website. Travelzoo’s American site also features sports deals occasionally.
If you can’t catch a game, find a local sports bar. The good ones will have multiple flatscreen TVs, excellent fried food and lots of beer on tap. They’ll also be filled with passionate fans whose oohs, ahhs, roars and groans will tell you how the game is going from around the corner. If you're in the Midwest or South, you’ll undoubtedly come across tribes of college football fans. With marching bands, cheerleaders, fight songs and mascots, college football is perhaps the most colourful and uniquely American sports pastime, and in certain parts of the country it surpasses religion for the devoutness of its fans. College football is played on Saturday while most pro games are played on Sunday.
To prepare yourself for the American sporting scene (including statistics, standings and analysis), visit websites like ESPN.com or SI.com. ESPN, the cable network, is also home to the sports highlights and news show SportsCenter, which is a pop culture phenomenon unto itself.
Click here to go back to Part 1: tipping in the US.