Restaurant reviews can make or break a restaurant, especially from a noted publication or a famed food critic. The food pages of the New York Times aren’t the same as a travel guidebook, and the researchers have to choose restaurants in a decidedly different manner, with different criteria and priorities than we would use in picking a place to eat back home.
Problem #1: Location
First is location. All restaurants more than 30-minutes journey from a cluster of hotels and attractions, whether by public transit or taxi, are excluded. This naturally excludes many high value small restaurants that can’t afford center city rent.
Problem #2: Hostile
Second, the absolute requirement for a basic willingness to serve foreign guests and deal with bumbling tourists eliminates many other dining places. Popular and famous restaurants have been known to discourage foreign guests from making reservations or walking in because training staff to deal with them is not worth their time, and the disruption of clueless intruders is a net negative for the ambience.
Problem #3: Language
Still, most restaurants are more than willing to serve you, but insurmountable language barriers make dining out all but impossible. There’s scarcely a backpacker who can’t recount having to point at someone else’s plate just to get food to come to the table. No English menu, no English spoken, inability to handle English reservations, and a smiling but panicked staff all eliminate many good eateries from the running.
Problem #4: Price Spread
Now we are left with restaurants in good locations that are willing and able to serve foreign guests. The first real criterion that a typical diner would use is value. Tourist trap restaurants are rife in our remaining pool so these are eliminated for high prices, low food values, and often poor ambience. However, among high value (taste and ambience vs price) restaurants, there’s a large spread of price points, everything from the $6 lunch to the $600 once-in-a-lifetime culinary masterpiece. With limited space to print restaurants, covering the price spread is the next important consideration, but at least at this point the researcher is beginning to write restaurant reviews.
Problem #5: Dietary Restrictions and Variety
Dietary restrictions reserve ten to twenty percent of restaurant selections, whether for vegetarians, vegans, or those with food allergies. Such places are often lower value than other establishments due to the lack of options that meet the above criteria outside major cities.
Finally, given space for, say, twenty restaurants in a major city, the researcher needs to select a mix of cuisines, levels of popularity, and kinds of ambience across neighborhoods and the price spread, making sure there’s a good balance in each district. Pride of place goes to local cuisine, but international options round out the offerings in case the reader has gotten sick of the local specialty.
Problem #6: Budget
And here’s the real kicker: most guidebook researchers have neither the time nor the budget to try out every restaurant considered for inclusion in a guidebook. At best, three or four eateries and a couple bars could be visited and small dishes could be sampled. Anything more than this merely burns through the writer’s advance at an untenable rate. Worse yet, not every restaurant that is taste-tested is a keeper, even if the online reviews seem favorable.
So, what to do?
So why not just follow online restaurant reviews and skip guidebooks entirely? Aggregate reviews have their own set of problems. Starred reviews skew heavily toward cheap, tasty joints because everyone can afford to try them, whereas famously excellent restaurants are often docked stars because the food, although very good, didn’t taste “$200 good.”
Another critical issue is that your tastes may not agree with the common opinion. An “odori-gui” (dancing food) Japanese restaurant will drive off 90% of Western customers with its still-living or twitchingly dead seafood dishes, but maybe that’s just the thing an aficionado of fresh seafood craves. Conversely, a horde of foodies could make a trendy new spot seem good with rave restaurant reviews, but someone who likes simpler dishes may recall Julia Child’s quip, “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.”
So what’s the best solution for the problem of restaurant reviews? As a guidebook writer who knows how the sausage is made, I use guidebooks to give me a general lay of the land. I check online reviews of a few places listed and try them out if there seems to be consensus between the writer and the public, or if the writer recommends the spot for a reason I care about. If the guidebook seems reliable after several spots, I have a keeper, but if not, I take their recommendations with a grain of salt and turn to restaurant review websites to cast a wider net.
If all else fails, ask a local. They may point you to a place that has trouble serving you, but chances are, the food will be good nevertheless.