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How to Plan a Truly Excellent Food Crawl

There’s an art to hitting up five or six restaurants in a row with your friends

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.

The word “crawl” in the context of food and drink brings to mind images of drunken groups stumbling from bar to bar or mountains of meals ending in a mountain of Tums at the end of the night. But planning a well-organized, multi-stop food and drink excursion can actually be quite satisfying.

Typically when we go out to eat, we’re usually hitting up one restaurant and trying only a handful of dishes on the menu. That’s honestly too bad, because there’s a lot to be gained from experiencing several versions of the same dish one after another or exploring a food neighborhood wholistically. There’s also something inherently fun about sharing that experience with friends and getting just a touch overfull along the way.

But there’s a surprising amount of planning and logistics required to build a really great crawl. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but — like any multi-step activity with more than one person — it does help to take a moment to think through the day. Here are some simple tips and tricks for building a coordinated and downright delightful crawl around town.

1) Get a group together

It’s totally fine and wonderful to dine solo even with multiple stops, but arguably it’s much more fun to share back-to-back meals with a dining partner or, even better, several people: This way, the group gets to try more food and drink without giving up as much stomach real estate. There’s also less waste, meaning fewer boxes to carry around and more opportunities to discuss dishes. Call it group bonding.

It’s important to make sure the group size is manageable, given that you’ll likely be showing up to multiple locations without a reservation. Having more than five people might make it more difficult to find a table. (If you are in a large group, do yourself a favor and book a table in advance.) A small gathering can quickly turn into a drunk Santa bar crawl nightmare if not properly managed.

2) Work out payment details first

Within that group, make sure it’s clear how food is being paid for. Is one person picking up the tab and everyone else Venmos a certain amount? Is the group splitting the bill each time? Is a different person covering the cost at each stop? These details are an essential part of group dining and if they’re not addressed early, can make things awkward later on.

3) Pick a theme

Food crawls are best when there’s a goal, even if that goal is to simply eat as much food as possible in one day. Perhaps the plan is to have an epic burger face-off or try all the cheese curds in Madison, Wisconsin, or explore the best restaurants in Chinatown. If the parameters of the crawl are narrow, like burgers, that might determine how many stops you make along the way, or whether there’s a break between meals. Depending on the theme, the crawl could also range from affordable to more expensive. This doesn’t mean you have to be rigid with the theme, but it certainly helps guide the planning process.

4) Pick your location

The next vital aspect of the food crawl planning process is the locale. The nature of the word “crawl” implies a geographic area that one explores by foot. While, it’s not a hard and fast rule, it’s often best to pick a walkable area for a crawl where locations that fit the theme are relatively close together. Think: Big slices in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood; Polish restaurants in Hamtramck, Michigan; and Mexican street food on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Depending on the season, the weather, and transportation options (maybe you could cover more ground by bike?), the willingness to crawl longer distances might vary.

5) Check the business hours

This is also a good time to look into the hours of the businesses you’re planning to visit. Some may require reservations. Some restaurants may open only on weekdays during lunch hours, while others may open only at night. There’s no bigger bummer than showing up and discovering the place you were looking forward to is actually closed on the day of the crawl. Picking the start time and order of stops can help avoid this problem.

6) Be realistic about the number of stops on your tour

While two back-to-back meals is a perfectly lovely amount of eating, a good crawl has at least three stops. More than eight, meanwhile, might start to feel overwhelming. A food crawl with at least three destinations could easily stretch three to four hours, depending on the style of restaurants you’re visiting and the types of food you order. A full service restaurant may take a bit longer to prepare food than a street food vendor, while a beer is a much faster order than a fancy cocktail. Likewise, a taco crawl might include more stops than a burrito crawl, because tacos are typically smaller and less bulky.

7) Plan a route with designated breaks

It’s worth planning a break in a long crawl to grab drinks at a bar or do some sort of non-food activity along your chosen route. This gives the group time time to digest and prepare stomachs for even more eating. If you’re planning a drinking crawl (might we suggest boozy milkshakes?), it’s wise to include rest breaks for water and food. If consuming excessive amounts of food makes you sleepy, knowing the nearest coffee shop could also prove useful. Google Maps is a really handy tool, because it allows you to see how much time it will take to walk between stops and will help you see the most logical order of restaurant and bar visits.

8) Pace yourself

When ordering food on a crawl, it’s important to consider what dishes and how much food the group wants to order. If the crawl entails eating the same dish at multiple locations, it might be best to purchase just one or two items at each location and split the meal. When it comes to things like burgers or shawarma, that might mean requesting a knife to slice the item into smaller portions for the group. Keep in mind that while leftovers are wonderful, carrying around bags and boxes of food during the crawl isn’t much fun — especially if it’s going to be several hours before the food hits a fridge.

9) Expect some questions from restaurant staff

Because crawls involve a lot of eating, that usually means that your food orders will be pretty small, relative to the size of crawl crew. Don’t be surprised if you get some questions from your server and try to be respectful and understanding of the restaurant’s needs. Finish your food or drinks and try not to linger unless you’re ordering more items (there are plenty more stops on your list anyway!). If the group is sticking to a tight schedule, maybe ask to close out the tab when food is delivered. As always, tip well.

10) Be flexible

As with all best laid plans, sometimes things don’t work out the way we expect — and that’s totally okay. Sometimes the bar we are desperate to visit is closed unexpectedly. Sometimes the item we want to order isn’t on the menu. Sometimes a crawl date may need to be delayed in order to get the most out of the experience. It’s all part of the fun and adventure. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan, either, if you stumble upon a spot that looks intriguing.

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