The Ninh Binh area is famous for its mountain goat meat (look out for 'de') and crispy rice (com chay) and you will see signs for both all over the place. Menus in hotels and in tourist-orientated restaurants are in English, but if you want try elsewhere we'd suggest you take a phrasebook with you.
Most hotels provide meals and we've heard good things about the food at Thanh Thuy Guesthouse and Ngoc Anh 2 Hotel, but if you're in Ninh Binh and want a bit more atmosphere with your dinner, try the huge Bia Hoi place on Tran Hung Dao St near the junction of Le Hong Phong Street -- Trau Vang (Golden Buffalo) -- which gets packed with locals eating goat and doing shots of rice wine, as well as enjoying the local beer on tap (although this was unavailable on our last visit). Drinks are good value but the food is on the pricey side -- if budget's a big consideration then try elsewhere.
For lunch, you'll find the usual array of street food places around town. We had some excellent Mien Luon (glass noodle soup with eel) in the first place you come to on Tran Hung Dao -- coming from the north -- after it meets the river and highly recommend Quan Ngon Ba Mai at number 1039 which served us up a delicious platter of bun noodles and salad with grilled pork, tofu, spring rolls and cha.
For coffee and fruit shakes, try the place next to Ngoc Anh 2 Hotel on Luong Van Tuy, which serves very good Vietnamese coffee, or, if you prefer a more salubrious -- and indoor -- environment walk across to Le Hong Phong and try Time which serves a wide range of coffee at street prices, despite the modern style. It also has a selection of yoghurt, ice cream and cocktails and a few cakes -- subject to availability.
Surprisingly, Tam Coc has a better selection of restaurants catering to foreign tourists than Ninh Binh city, serving both Vietnamese and Western fare. It even has a brand of the Lotteria fast food chain, though we'd suggest skipping that for Father Cooking, next to the boat station. ‘The best food in Vietnam' according to one reviewer's hand written testimonial.
We noticed a place in Ninh Binh that shows promise if you are looking for Western food, but it wasn't yet open: if you're in town, check out Cookies on Luong Van Tuy and let us know if it's any good.
If you're heading to Hoa Lu or Bai Dinh Pagoda under your own steam you will find no shortage of large restaurants lining the roads, waiting for coach loads of tourists to descend, and the sights themselves are geared up to serve fast food such as deep fried hotdogs. We're not a fan of either, but at least you won't starve.