I receive an unbelievably high number of requests for restaurant recommendations. While I would like to give every one a thoughtful response, it is simply not possible.
For years now, I have tried to think of a solution to this problem. Having failed to do so thus far, I have, in the meantime, set up an auto-response on my email account that, in part, apologizes for my limitations and advises all who seek restaurant recommendations to consult my restaurant log (although the frequency of my posts has slowed down woefully over the past two years, I keep my restaurant log current).
But, my restaurant log is grossly inadequate as a dining guide. I have only written about a fraction of the meals that are recorded, so my opinion about the vast majority of dining experiences over my nine years of blogging is incomplete. Other than my year-end “best of” lists, which simply highlight my favorite dishes and meals of that year, I issue no “ratings” or “rankings” for restaurants. And that will not change — I find ratings and rankings problematic for a number of reasons, many of which will be revealed over the course of this post.
My restaurant log, therefore, tells little of where I like to eat (The frequency of my visits to each restaurant, which are recorded in the log, gives some indication as to where I tend to eat. But it doesn’t necessarily give you an accurate representation of where I like eating.), and even less of where I would recommend others eat based on my experience(s).
As its name suggests, my restaurant log is simply that – a record of restaurants where I have eaten.
So, what is the solution?
As I see it, there are two main problems that need to be addressed.*
The first problem is transparency. How do I issue recommendations that also account for all of the pertinent factors that affect my opinion? No opinion is “fair,” because every opinion is the product of perspective, bias, personal experiences, and often, circumstance. I have written about these matters many times before, including issues like anonymity; meals for which I did not pay (due to any number of reasons); and my working relationships or friendships with those in the restaurant industry. How then to best to equip my audience with the information they deserve and need to more accurately value my opinion? It’s nearly impossible. Eating is a highly personal experience. Context is everything. How much disclosure is enough disclosure?
The second problem is with the consumer. I know, because, like you, I am a consumer. I’d like to think that I’m a particularly thoughtful and fair consumer, but I am a consumer nonetheless. We are all consumers within the restaurant industry. We are also consumers of the media that drive that industry, be it media en masse, or tiny cult blogs like mine. In an age of soundbites and quick clicks, we, the consumer, look for the shortest cut to the most amount of information. It’s understandable – I do it; we all do it. The digital age has whittled down our span of attention, and seemingly, the number of hours in the day. That is why lists and rankings have become so popular – they give us a large amount of information in a short amount of time; they’re easy references that we can carry in our pockets and minds. While this may be a practical and convenient way to exchange information, I think it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it makes us, the consumer, lazy and more dependent on others for information. As a result, it empowers others instead of us, the consumer. That is why I have been so critical of the current food culture, which has increasingly become a sad tale of mindlessness, a story of how an entire generation of consumers stopped thinking for themselves in favor of a quick feed from those whose legitimacy is rarely vetted.
Lists and rankings aim for the lowest common denominator. That is partly why I have avoided instituting any sort of rating or ranking of restaurants on my blog (the other reason is because I simply don’t think my opinion is weighty enough to justify doing so). This blog is not and has never been a quick, one-stop shop kind of situation. When I started writing this blog in January of 2005, I intended it for an audience of one: me. I never expected anyone else to read it. My blog was simply a way to combine my interests in eating, writing, and photography in one medium, a multi-media journal format made possible by the rise of the internet. To my surprise, in the years since, I have gained an audience (I know that sounds like an obligatory humble-brag, but it’s the truth). Although I am now very mindful of that fact (I wouldn’t be writing this post if I weren’t), I still write primarily for my own enjoyment and record (otherwise, I’d be writing much more frequently, opt for a flashier user interface, and give in to the many advertisers who send me requests every day).
So, is there a solution?
I thought so. For a few days, the remainder of this blog post set forth a new system in which I highlighted (in Tyrian tint - thus, the title of this blog post) some of the restaurants on my restaurant log that I felt confident recommending based on my experience. I made, what I thought, were ample disclosures and warnings about the flaws of this system of restaurant recommendations, reminded readers that I made no absolute claims about the restaurants that I recommended, and urged readers (repeatedly) to do their own due diligence with regard to the restaurants.
However, despite all the disclaimers that I included, I felt increasingly uneasy about my decision. After much thought, and after taking in some very insightful feedback from good friends, I have decided to recall my recommendations. Here is why:
The purpose of this blog, as I stated above, was to record my dining experiences. And that, I have done and will continue to do.
However, since this blog is now read by a surprisingly large number of visitors from around the world, it has become more than just a record. It has become a resource. As a result, one of the greatest joys that I now derive from writing this blog is the opportunity to share my journey and experiences with those who care to read about them.
But, this is my little corner of the internet, and if you have come here seeking my opinion, I want you to slow down and consider what I have to say. Get to know me through my writing. Learn my preferences, my perspective, and my biases. You may not always agree with what I have to say. I’m okay with that. In fact, I encourage (polite) discussion, discourse, and disagreement. But knowing how your opinion differs from mine will help you navigate my blog, my writing, and even help you decide where you might or might not want to eat based on what I have written about a restaurant. That’s context. And, as I wrote above, context is everything.**
Issuing a list of recommended restaurants, however carefully done, eliminates much of that context. I issued those recommendations because it was a convenient way for me to give my readers what they wanted. It was a shortcut for me. And I shouldn’t have taken it. I realized that I was walking a dangerous ledge off of which I feel so many others (lists, rankings, guides, etc.) have fallen. So, I decided to yank myself back.
It may be hard for you to believe, but I’ve never regretted a meal, no matter how disappointing or bad it might have been. I consider every meal a lesson, every plate another point of reference that I can add to my library of experiences. One of the best things of life is the adventure of discovering things on your own. Trial and error increases knowledge and produces better results. I encourage you to think about food and get to know about food from that perspective. I realize that not everyone has the resources to do what I have seemingly done so liberally – fly around the world and eat wherever I want (I assure you, that is an over-simplified version of the truth). You want a sure bet. But time was, I was a poor graduate school student traveling the world and taking chances on a shoestring budget. Here’s the proof. But, if you consider every meal as an opportunity to learn, come what may, then your risk diminishes considerably.
I am sorry that I can’t write about every meal that I have at every restaurant that I visit. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the resources to do that. But, if you will trust me, I will do my best to give you as much information as I can. And, if you read my writing carefully, you will find my recommendations therein. If you have any questions, I invite you to comment or send me an email (a link to my email address is in the top right corner). But please, do your homework first. The internet is an amazing resource. Read what others have to say. If you don’t know where to start, start with some of my fellow bloggers listed on my blogroll (located on the right margin of this blog). They are an excellent resource. Otherwise, go out and eat. And please, report back!
You will find my restaurant log returned to its prior state. That same “restaurants” link is permanently affixed to the top right corner of this blog under “stuff.”
* I don’t face these problems alone. My friends and fellow bloggers, Chuck of chuckeats and Adam of A Life Worth Eating, struggle with the same issues. We’ve huddled over this matter, the three of us. Together, we’ve brainstormed for ways to give our readers a helpful guide while avoiding all the pitfalls and dangers of lists and rankings. We even devised a number of formulas in an attempt to compute and composite our dining experiences. But, ultimately, we did not feel like our methods were sound enough. While the results generally represented our collective opinions about where we like to eat, there were outliers and gaps. We proposed handicaps (for example, this was a recurring issue: one of us would give very high marks to a restaurant that the other two had never visited) and adjustments to compensate for the skew. We debated how often we should update our scores (we three eat out a lot). And we went back and forth on how the results should be presented (I was strongly against ranking the results, rather listing the highest-scoring restaurants alphabetically). In the end, we abandoned the project because we felt that we couldn’t justify the results to our own satisfaction.***
** The best food writers aren’t those with whom I agree. They’re the ones who are knowledgeable and consistent. Because when a writer is knowledgeable, I trust them, and when they’re consistent, then I know how to orient myself in relation to them.
*** I believe that an autocracy is a more efficient and superior form of governance than a democracy. But an autocracy is really only superior if the autocrat is benevolent (or, as Voltaire would have described the great Russian Empress Catherine II, “enlightened”). In the same way, most popular restaurant guides, rankings, and lists fall victim to the inefficiencies of the democratic process. Too many opinions (which usually includes a hearty helping of the lowest common denominator) muddy the waters too much to produce results that are useful or even helpful. The popular vote is rarely the informed vote.