I love exploring good eateries. I hate wasting an opportunity to eat out (and money) on mediocre places. Last night’s dinner was wasted on overcooked penne with watery tomato sauce that had maybe three pieces of eggplant at most. I finished it because I didn’t want to waste food. The dish cost me $21, too. Good thing you don’t tip in Korea, sigh.
My date was to blame as he picked out the place with confidence, apparently having read all the raving reviews online. Since it was only our second date, I didn’t want to yet reveal my identity of a picky foodie who obsesses over fresh v. dry thyme and just smiled and nodded when he asked if my dinner was good. After a cup of bitter coffee and a slice of just-okay tiramisu at this really crowded cafe, again chosen by Mr. I-Love-Review-Sites, I was full and unhappy.
When I got home, I got curious and looked up these places online. Both the restaurant and cafe had an average rating of four stars out of five as well as over a hundred reviews each. A number of other “foodies” were raving over the large portions, spectacular interior, friendly service, beautiful glassware, and cozy atmosphere. (Oh, some mentioned the “delicious food”.) Someone took off a star because the restaurant didn’t refill their bread basket. Someone added a star because they weren’t forced to order a dish per person. Someone took off a star because they wouldn’t take Visa. Hmm, where’s the conversation about the food?
I do read on some of these review sites to find good places to eat. When I’m visiting California, I mostly look on Yelp. When I lived in Manhattan, I’d go on zagat.com or menupages.com, and even Citysearch if I got really desperate. But how helpful is all the information? When I think I’ve found a decent place, I’d see a reviewer who gave the place one star, saying how all the dishes were served cold and the waiter was unfriendly. Then all of sudden, I’m discouraged. I try another place, and among many praises, I read a couple of reviews that claim the portions are too small and the wait is too long. Along with all the noise, completely irrelevant to the actual food, now there are a lot of paid reviewers on these sites as well as individual blogs. Taste is a very subjective matter to begin with, but on top of it, now you could actually get false information.
I do agree that the place’s price, service, wait time, portions, and all the rest shape your whole dining experience, but unless something is really worth noting, I simply don’t care. And even if something was really bad, like the waiter spilled the bowl of soup on your lap, it should not impact your star rating of the place since it’s most likely just your bad luck. I mean, I can’t imagine a restaurant where the waiters spill soup on every other customer’s lab. In my opinion, a restaurant should be rated and reviewed solely on its food. If you experience something else (usually service) that is great or horrible, a side note would be sufficient. Sure, there are places that constantly deliver poor service, but they are generally not the expensive, sit-down places and I don’t expect their full attention. There are places with sanitation issues too, but the food is never that great when you can’t keep up with the fundamentals of the kitchen anyway. If I don’t return to a place, it’s because the food is not worth it, not because of the slow waiter or the uncomfortable seat.
Truly good food, the kind that makes me smile and say “Wow,” lets me forget about all the extra aspects of the restaurant. It’s only when the food is okay that I start getting distracted and paying attention to the interior or the waiter.
When I write about some of my favorite eateries, I will be focusing on their food — its flavor, texture, ingredients, and such. If there is something notable, or a good story to tell, I will share it as well. But I will only be writing about those “wow” places, so it shouldn’t affect your decision. Just try them.