I’ve been traveling fairly regularly to San Francisco for years. Yet, until recently, I’d mostly dread those trips. San Francisco is expensive, its people half kind and generous, half aggressively irritating and it’s food scene, pretentious, fickle, boring (or so I thought). As it turns out, and to my delight, there is some good food in San Francisco, but a lot of far more mediocre food and quite a lot of straightforwardly bad food. As a result, random chance is not an option. Neither is trusting the opinions of people, even in San Francisco, the home of Yelp!
It may be peculiar to say, but there is a difference between “popular” and “delicious.” If and when the two overlap, it has more to do with coincidence than the discerning nature of public opinion. The public, after all, is composed of individuals with varying preferences. These preferences, prioritized within individual minds and among them, determine what’s ultimately popular. In terms of specifically food, I like to think there are five competing preferences (setting aside the restaurant experience including plating or presentation, service and decor):
- Cost (the price paid for food)
- Speed (how fast the food is served)
- Healthfulness (how nutritious or conducive to good health the food is)
- Familiarity (the extent to which an individual feels pleasure and comfort with food as a result of a history with that food)
- Deliciousness (the pleasure derived from food with a pleasing taste)
While cost is a measure of what is surrendered by an individual for food, speed, healthfulness, familiarity and deliciousness represent what is received. However, not every individual generally prefers speed, healthfulness, familiarity and deliciousness to the same extent. Some, like me, generally prefer deliciousness over all other items. Others may generally value speed and healthfulness. Still others may reliably change preferences with their mood, moment to moment, never conforming to any one set of preferences. Thus, a “popular” restaurant is not necessarily one that serves delicious food (or even delicious food for the right cost). Rather, a popular restaurant is merely one where enough individuals find sufficient value based on how the speed, healthfulness, familiarity and deliciousness of that food bears to its cost.
This is why crowd sourced reviews such as those on Yelp! reliably fail to please people like me who are willing to wait for their potentially not-so-healthy, novel (but very delicious) food. This is also why friend recommendations, thoughtlessly given, are so often useless. It all comes down to differing preferences and perceptions of value.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions here. Yelp! is easy, but entirely unreliable. You may follow some a food writer or three with whom you share preferences, but finding global, up to date coverage is difficult. As a result, I use a three step process that starts with defining and familiarizing myself with a set of great restaurants in the city I plan to travel to. I define this set with the aid of professional rating groups, many of whom break out their ratings to include factors like deliciousness and cost. In the case of San Francisco, I tend to find Eater and Zagat particularly helpful for their new and small restaurant coverage and Michelin and AAA for the larger, established ones.
Once I define a set of restaurants and familiarize myself with them at a high level, I speak to knowledgeable restaurant and bar industry friends as my second step. People in the restaurant and bar industry generally have the inside scoop on which spots are actually cooking interesting and delicious foods versus just catering to the masses and their Yelp! reviews. If you don’t have any friends in the restaurant or bar industry, it may not be particularly helpful to you to just speak with less specialized group of friends. Even so-called “foodies” may not be helpful, given our differing preferences.
If you’re fortunate enough to have friends in the restaurant and bar industry, Facebook is especially helpful in finding who lives in, has lived in, is visiting or has visited any particular city. If any of your friends have listed a city in their current or past residence, or have merely checked into or tagged themselves in a picture at a restaurant, Facebook allows you to search for it. Simply typing “my friends who visited San Francisco” is enough to pull up a large and useful list. From there, chat away concerning the set of restaurant and bars you previously defined, as appropriate.
By now you may have identified some sure bets in terms of restaurants and bars. My third step is entirely on the ground, going to some of these sure bets and making friends with the people who work there. This is pretty easy as people in the restaurant and bar industry are generally very outgoing people. I like to stop by during off peak hours and always sit at the bar. This way, you tend to get the undivided attention of your bartender to strike up conversation. Although servers can also be helpful, I’ve found that bartenders are more often the best source for information.
After making a bit of genuinely friendly and interesting conversation, I’ll ask for their recommendations and cross reference with my list. I’ll only follow the most enthusiastic recommendations, however. People who aren’t enthusiastic themselves about a restaurant or bar are probably just on autopilot, recommending what most people tend to be satisfied with. If they like it themselves and are excited to talk about it, it’s a good sign it’s worth going to. Armed with this combined data of professional recommendations that appealed to you most and insider recommendations from from old and new friends in the restaurant and bar industry, you can make a very informed decision about where to eat. It’s worth nothing that all the hard work has always been entirely worth it, in my experience.
My Restaurant and Bar Guides
For the fruits of my labors, please check out the restaurant and bar guides by city below. I’ll be updating them periodically, to be sure.
New York City
Chicago Chinese Food
Have a question? Ask me anything!
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