Great topic, which gets to the core of what drives sites like this, namely the desire for people to restaurants they enjoy. Imo, the reason "best lists" are so important is that they help people sift through the many restaurants in a quick and easy to understand way--the last two qualities are really important given the limited time, resources and information overload society we live in.
But like Tom and Kaleo, I don't think many of these "best" lists (or awards) are reliable or even very legitimate (primarily because of the financial stakes of these awards). So how do we find a way to get the most helpful and reliable reviews or best lists? I think it starts with getting reliable reviewers. Here are some qualities of a reviewer I will pay attention to:
1. They should have a lot of experience whatever type of food in question. The people who have a lot of experience eating the type of food in question generally have more credibly than those that don't
2. They should have discriminating tastes, maybe even hard to please. Some reviewers seem to love everything. I don't have a lot of faith in these reviewers. (On the other hand, I don't really trust someone that hates everything, too.)
3. They should have the capacity to be brutally honest. This is somewhat related to point #2.
4. They should give pertinent, detailed information in their reviews. This includes information like the reviewer's experience of the food (e.g. I've been eating tacos all my life and I've traveled the world looking for...), and it also includes details about the food (relating to #2 and #3).
5. Finally, if possible they have similar tastes preferences as the reader.
I'd put quite a bit of stock in a reviewer like that.
Tom expressed some disdain for ratings, but I think that if you got a bunch of people with the qualities I mentioned above and had them rate places, I think you get some really reliable recommendations.
Just to clarify, my disdain isn’t with ratings per se, it is with ratings based on a system of voting where anybody and everybody who wants to can vote (e.g., Zagat). Such a system is very often an exercise in “herd mentality” that can be more influenced by marketing and trendiness than by the quality of food. Following my previous post, I was thinking about the question, “How can one tell whether or not someone has a good palate?” Your list is a good start in discussing the answer to that question, Jazzaloha. It also occurs to me that extensive knowledge about food and an eloquent or entertaining, jaunty style in writing about food (e.g., Jonathan Gold) are not necessarily the same thing as having a good palate. Knowledge and experience certainly help. However, they may only be necessary but not sufficient conditions. And you’re right, Jazz, no matter how big a reputation someone may have for having an amazing, sophisticated, and discriminating palate, if you find yourself disagreeing with him or her most of the time over common eating experiences, his or her opinions aren’t going to be very useful for you.
That’s a very complicated subject, and hard to squeeze into a brief response. Here are a few thoughts as the tip of a very big iceberg. (1) Opinions about food are, by nature, subjective and personal. But discussing whether the food at Restaurant A is better than the food at Restaurant B with someone who thinks that Taco Bell serves great Mexican food isn’t likely to be a illuminating conversation. The problem with any bulletin-board format for a food website – including Chowhound, although it isn’t as bad as Yelp – is that you have to get to know which posters have something interesting to say and which are simply idiots. It’s the same with professional restaurant critics and food bloggers. There are some whose opinions gain our respect and attention over time. And there are lots of others whose blathering is a complete waste of time. Some cities and areas have better critics, bloggers, and posters than others. I think that Jonathan Kauffman moving back to San Francisco was a big loss for Seattle. (2) I agree with the cornichon blog – and kaleokahu – about the commercialization of “best lists.” The process by which a profit-seeking magazine determines “the best” restaurants is inherently conflicted and tainted, and the manner in which profit-seeking restaurants compete for that recognition is likewise tainted. There’s nothing “pure” about it. The only limited purpose these “best lists” can sometimes serve is to bring an unknown restaurant to the attention of a broader public, so that more people can go and check out the restaurant for themselves. But “best lists” aren’t designed to, and rarely do, bring unknown restaurants into the limelight. That, in my opinion, is the highest calling and function of Chowhound – a community of folks who travel the back roads, not the main highways, and share their “discoveries” with others. Discovering one previously unknown little restaurant serving terrific food is worth a lot more than a zillion new folks weighing in on how good the food at Crush is. (3) Restaurant rankings based on “votes” are a joke. One of the reasons that Jim Leff originally started Chowhound.com was to distinguish “Chowhounds” from “Foodies” and veer away from Zagat’s reliance on herd mentality. Who do we trust? Ultimately, ourselves. How do we really get the best reviews of restaurants? By going there, experiencing the food, and deciding for ourselves. That’s really all that counts.
Ja, Naturlich! We OUGHT to trust who we ALREADY trust, and hazard a little hopeful faith on folks who demonstrate some rational thinking and culinary experience. 'Hazard' being the word on which to place the pushpin. Everybody else, it's just chin music.
Isn't that the way it used to work before everyone with a confirmation bias, an incentive to shill, or the food stupid disease got to vote? Professional reviewers had their... well LIVELIHOODS on the line if they blew it too bad or too often. Turns out in our always-restless digital days, we finally have an eloquent proof of an old analog saw: opinions really ARE like A-holes--everyone's got one, now see what they're worth. We'll see come November if this insanity metasticizes into a body politic no smarter than my dog (who prefers FOX News). Same principle. And same lesson: DON'T NECESSARILY BELIEVE WHAT OTHERS TELL YOU.
In re: restaurants, don't we all (all of us who can remember life before Cyberspace) recall the ads in the in-flight mags touting this-or-that steakhouse as being awarded "Seattle's Best" and "one of only X in the country this good"? Well, the awardER turned out to be SELLING the "awards" all over the country, and there were a lot more than 10X winners . I've never forgiven The Metropolitan Grill for partaking in that fraud, even though they do good steaks and chops.
"Caveat Gourmand" is one lesson I've learned. But behind it is the possibility you can go into a restaurant light on expectation and DISCOVER (it will seem like for yourself) something wonderful.
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