How I Learned To Love Bad Yelp Recommendations

For people who like the hunt as much as the feast that follows, the age of crowdsourcing need not spoil the fun of finding good food

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Traveling down the East Coast to Key West, then zig-zagging across The South and Southwest en route to California, I decided to road test the Yelp iPhone application to see if it would add to my adventures. In theory the tool is perfectly suited to my needs as a traveler: loosed on an unfamiliar city, what interests me more than museums or tourist attractions are the sorts of food I can't get at home. But I had misgivings too. As Joe Posnanski once explained, there is something lost when we stop curating our own lives and give things over to the Genius algorithm. Implicit in doing so is the judgment that finding music or movies or food best suited to our tastes is more important and fulfilling than the experience of searching for hits among misses.

I'd always enjoyed food hunting in the era before Web help, as much for the journey as the destination. Circa 2001, I backpacked around Europe with three friends: Dave, whose keen sense of direction kept us from getting lost; Cody, a whiz at currency conversion; and Mike, who had a knack for picking up the local language. For most of every day, I relied on their respective skills and contributed little besides company. Come mealtime, however, I'd be the one to scout out restaurants. I almost always managed to find us good food despite our meager budget. There were obvious methods: never eating too near a major tourist attraction, for example. But I depended on intuition too. I fancied that I could make a reasonably sound judgment about a place by sizing up the outside, peaking in the dining room, and glancing at a menu. I enjoyed having to wander out of the way streets, and lucking upon unexpected options. And the risk of sitting down to eat at a place with awful fare made success all the more satisfying.

"The tacos are filling! And you can just grab piles of sauces without having to ask for it like a child. Del Taco took Taco Bell off the map for me."

Would Yelp make my talent superfluous, so that people like Dave, Cody and Mike would suddenly be able to find restaurants as well as I could? (Curators hate to lose their comparative advantage.)

Would it lead me to ever better food and less fulfilling trips?

New York City in the Internet age reassured me. Its food options are exhaustively chronicled by newspapers, magazines, blogs and social media users. Almost every establishment in Manhattan at least has a listing. Still, it cost me hundreds of dollars and a lot of terrible meals to scout out the city's best burritos, and even in the age of Yelp many California transplants have thanked me profusely when I informed them that, for example, one of the finest on the island can be found in the underground food court located at 805 Third Avenue (get the Alambre with chicken and the spiciest salsa).

Confidence renewed, I hit the road with Yelp.

As my girlfriend and I headed south I realized that even if it did end up making restaurant hunting less fun I'd hate giving it up. I was working from the road. It was invaluable to be told the exact location of the nearest coffee shop with Wi-Fi, complete with step-by-step driving directions. And on the highway in West Virginia, there's no way we'd have known to stop in Charles Town for a late lunch at the delicious Dish without a little help from our "friends." In that we sometimes went slightly out of our way for a highly-rated restaurant, Yelp added to our spontaneity.

Quickly enough, I learned to stop judging establishments by the number of stars alone. That method had proved disastrous in Key West, since the average visitor to that town has very different taste in bars than I do. (So many flat screen TVs and blaring speakers and drinks with pineapple juice and grenadine!) But every establishment had a lot of reviews, and once I started delving into them I figured out that The Schooner Wharf Bar would be the best choice: removed a bit from the main strip, outdoors, live music and a lot of patrons describing it as laid back. Says one reviewer, "Yeah, it's a ramshackle boozer haven, seemingly strung together by leftover wood from the docks, beer bottles, plastic tables and liquor-laced forgotten dreams." Sentences like that tell you a lot about a place.

Through the Deep South we had recommendations galore for barbecue joints and restaurants, some from personal friends, others from folks on the Internet aware that I was taking the trip. Some people you just trust: when Derek Brown says a place has great craft cocktails, you go there. But Yelp was a way to guard against folks with lesser reputations steering us wrong, whether due to outdated information or questionable taste. It also served as a tiebreaker when we had only one meal in a town, and three or four highly recommended establishments among which to choose.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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