As a systematic consumer, I do excessive amounts of research to ensure that my experiences are satisfying. This is especially the case before traveling, and is work I consider critical to happiness and well worth the effort. Here are my best practices for uncovering the outstanding before you hit the road.
Search best of...
Most cities have a dominant magazine and entertainment newspaper, both of which publish annual Best Of lists, with fairly thorough and specific dining and drinking reviews. Also scan newspaper food and wine sections and national publications like Food and Wine or Travel and Leisure that focus on outstanding experiences. Examine these, giving considerable attention to the publications' choices, and less to the readers' votes. Look for your personal keywords. (Mine are Fine Dining, Sommeliers, Wine, Service, and Servers) When you find an interesting target, go to the web site, give it a once over, and save it in a list of destinations for that city if it passes the eye test.
The next search is for local, high-traffic blogs about food and wine in the city. On blogs by respectable writers, you are likely to find more choices, but this is primarily for in-depth information, and confirmation of your interest in your initial list of options. You will also learn of news and events that you may want to take into consideration for your travel itinerary.
Social-driven sites like Urban Spoon, Eater, Yelp, and Trip Advisor can deliver additional layers of confirmation. This is chiefly visual, through the volumes of non-staged photographs posted by diners. Low ratings on these sites are a red flag for me, leading to further scrutiny of a potential choice, while high ratings and extreme comments are taken with a grain of salt.
Narrow the field
Once you compile a satisfactory list of alternatives, make closer inspections of the chosen few. Which ones have a version of your favorite dish, an acclaimed wine list, or an intriguing new adventure? Does the wine list have a good selection with descriptions and years, not to mention reasonable prices? View the "about" and staff pages, looking for indications that the restaurant caters to your style and preferences. Contemplate the area surrounding the establishment, it's convenience to your location, dress, (yes, still) and hours of operation.
If you're involving others in the dining decisions, now is the time to share the short list with your traveling companions. I provide a list of links with brief notes about my findings when asking for opinions.
Even if you have made your decisions by now, go ahead and look at social media. Many restaurants, chefs, and sommeliers are active socially, and eager to connect and share. There are often valuable pieces of information, such as limited offers or special events, that are delivered exclusively via social.
So you have started early, made reservations for potentially great dining, and built up your anticipation. Always do a last-minute review for breaking news or changes at the restaurants. It is disappointing to realize too late that the entree you were excited to try went out with last season's menu, that the restaurant is closed for vacation, or closed. While traveling, make notes about your meals, beverages, and service, however brief. You will begin to notice your own trends, your personal Big Wine and Food Data, and also the correlation between good wine and excellent service.
Pre-travel research takes time, but pays off with fulfilling wining and dining. Wherever your destination, delve into the wealth of information that is readily available, and make every meal an enjoyable experience.