How I Learned To Love Bad Yelp Recommendations

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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

Aloha Specialties Restaraunt.jpg

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.

My friend Alex Schmidt once told me that sometimes when listening to FM radio while driving in the car, the deejay plays a song she likes and hadn't expected to hear, and she feels a unique delight -- even though she owns the same song, and could've theoretically chosen to scroll through her iPod to play it, something about the unexpectedness makes hearing it on the radio so much better.

At 16, I first experienced a similar kind of surprise. I'd spent five or six hours surfing, climbed up the bluff famished in that way only ocean swimming can make you, and drove my first car through the Del Taco in Dana Point, California, where a new menu item, the Spicy Chicken Burrito, was advertised. What unexpected bliss! I'm always amused at the memory of hanging out with Cody that summer, having these very earnest conversations about the superiority of that menu item relative to its equivalents. Call it snobbery or refinement, but I'd pass on free Del Taco today. There are always far better Mexican options in California. Perusing Yelp Orange County, however, I see that some Del Tacos are very highly rated, and I can't hold the taste of today's sixteen-year-olds against them. "The tacos are filling! And you can just grab piles of sauces without having to ask for it like a child," one teenage boy writes. "Del Taco took Taco Bell off the map for me."

He gave it four stars.

It's the wonderfully questionable taste of Americans like him that helps keep Yelp a net plus in my life. Sizing up a restaurant while standing outside isn't so different from parsing its online reviews as I initially imagined. In both enterprises, there are best practices, a lot of room for intuitive judgment and reading between the lines, a need to recognize it when savvy restaurants are trying to trick potential patrons, and a satisfaction from reading the landscape better than one's peers.

And you're always learning something new.

On our road trip, Las Vegas was our last stop before we made it to California. Arriving around dinner time, my girlfriend and I were thrilled to see In-N-Out, a fix we hadn't been able to get for months. We celebrated our imminent return to the West Coast with Double Doubles animal-style. The next morning we turned to Yelp to figure out what to have for lunch before we crossed the desert.

Neither of us knew what kind of cuisine we felt like. Perusing highly-rated restaurants near our hotel -- off the strip, near downtown -- we saw Aloha Specialties Restaurant, which served Hawaiian food. I thought back to the tastiest food I'd eaten when I was in Hawaii: a luau pig, exceptional sushi, tender teriyaki chicken. The reviews posted now are a lot like the ones I read back then: a lot of Hawaiians raving about how the fare on offer is every bit as good as the food they most miss from back home. "The oscillating intonations of Pidgin English are the only language spoken inside these doors," one five-star reviewer, a transplanted islander, writes. "The line to order is always 20 minutes long, but your food arrives within five. I could have sat at Aloha Specialties all day, savoring everything on their menu, and just relishing in a contentment I hadn't felt in ten years."

Everything I'd learned about parsing Yelp reviews told me this place would be great. And after the meal, walking back to our car, Courtney and I agreed: it was without question the worst meal of our trip. "Rubbery spam, rice and ewww," she later said. (To be fair, the place still has great reviews.) How had I miscalculated? The lesson I've taken from the experience is that lots of people born in Hawaii have radically ... different culinary tastes than me. Conjuring the islands, I think of fresh mahi mahi and authentic rum drinks. Facing facts, however, these are folks who enthusiastically eat spam at every opportunity.

Unaccustomed to their corner of Yelp, the advice proffered sent me down an unexpectedly unpleasant ally. The food was awful -- but I'm glad we ate there. I had a good time choosing the place. Courtney and I still laugh about it. And it's made finding and eating every meal since a little bit more fun.

Image: Yelp.

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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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