I travel a lot, and one of the great joys of doing so is trying new restaurants and eating new foods. But when you’re in a strange city, it can be difficult to find restaurants that are actually worthwhile.
I believe that all cities – even the smallest of small towns – have dining gems. As a rule, I avoid eating at chains. I’d rather look for something uniquely local than choose my dinner based on the comforting familiarity that restaurant chains purport to offer.
So I use Yelp. A lot.
Using Yelp – for me at least – doesn’t mean choosing the restaurant with the most stars. I look to some of the other information in a review – information that I find much more valuable than the rating by itself (although, to be honest, I wouldn’t eat at a place with less than three stars).
One of the challenges of relying on user-generated reviews is that you don’t know those users. I mean, who’s to say if Tori K from Redondo Beach, California has a decent palate? Who knows if Angie S. from Junction City, Oregon had ever eaten sushi before she left her scathing review about her meal being “fishy tasting”? Perhaps Todd R. from Springfield, Illinois is simply an asshole and that’s why he ended up with lousy service.
You can still learn a lot from these reviews, I’d argue, even if you know nothing about Tori or Angie or Todd. But you have to read the reviews thoroughly, and read a handful for each restaurant. You want to be able to identify, for example, what’s consistent across reviews. Every restaurant has a bad day. And statistically, I suppose, even the worst restaurant can get it right one time. So I look for patterns in the reviews – similar comments, similar impressions about an entree or an entire establishment.
Perhaps the most important advice I can give when making a restaurant decision based on Yelp: figure out what are you looking for in your dining experience. Set your expectations, and then evaluate the Yelp reviews based on what’s going to meet (and ideally, exceed) those expectations.
Are you craving a particular food or flavor? If you want sushi, search for “sushi.” If you want Indian food, search for “Indian food.” When you search for “restaurants” in Yelp, you’ll find that ethnic foods are sometimes less likely to show up in the results. (The US is overrun right now with “American (New),” so it seems.)
Do you have special food needs? Does, for example, the restaurant offer vegetarian or gluten-free options? Does it appear, based on reviews, that the kitchen is accommodating? (One of my favorite local restaurants has a policy of “no substitutions,” and you can see by the reviews on Yelp that this makes people furious.)
Can you actually view the menu? Does something there appeal to you? After all, looking at a menu posted on a restaurant’s front window has driven how we’ve made these decisions, long before the advent of Yelp. If you look at the menu and suddenly start craving the jalapeño cheese grits, it’s probably worth looking to see what other diners have said about the jalapeño cheese grits.
Does ambience matter to you? Lighting. Seating. View. In our case, I try to avoid choosing restaurants that Yelp indicates are noisy. Kin is deaf in one ear and has almost total hearing loss in the other, and nothing can ruin a meal faster than not being able to talk to one another or to understand the waitstaff.
Does service matter to you? I don’t mean simply “good service” from friendly waitstaff. How much time do you have for the meal? Do reviews indicate whether or not the service is consistently fast or slow? Are there hints about where to sit – at the bar, for example – if you want better service? Should you make a reservation? (For the record, when writing a review, this is pretty important information to include and could be one of the most helpful tidbits, particularly for out-of-towners.)
Are your expectations in order? I mean, sure, if you’re on the west coast, enjoy some sushi, by all means. But if you’re in Wyoming, don’t order seafood. You’re better off with a steak or some lamb. Don't get your hopes up for Buffalo chicken wings west of the Mississippi or for a decent bagel outside of Manhatten. If you’re in Maine, it might be tough – but not impossible! – to satisfy a craving for Mexican food. (Taco trucks are a godsend everywhere.) But just because you’re in Maine, you can still be discerning about where you go to eat lobster.
One of the least useful features of Yelp is the photos. If there’s one thing more frustrating than wading through useless reviews left on Yelp, it’s thumbing through the photos that folks have snapped of their meals. Amateur food photography is, by and large, pretty bad – far worse, I’d say than amateur restaurant reviewing. I try not to look at the food pictures as they’re more off-putting than encouraging, and I don’t think they necessarily reflect the meal at all. I don’t need to see a poorly lit and grainy photo of a half-eaten pile of pasta to understand that the pesto was too garlicky or the noodles were gluten-free. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to glean from a photo of a beer. "Oh look. This place serves a golden beverage in a pint glass." Pictures can, however, help you to see what the "space" is like. Just close your eyes and quickly swipe through the ones of actual food.
Photos are meant to be a visual shorthand to help you quickly make a decision. The same goes, of course, for the star rating system and the number of dollar signs that indicate price. But I’m not interested in expediency. I want to eat something delicious, and I’m willing to take the time to search for the right joint.
A few more tricks I’ve learned about finding good restaurants:
- Ignore the Yelp reviewer who has only left one review, whether it was a one-star or five-star or something in between. (The one-star reviews can be pretty hilarious, so by all means, read them. I read one recently in which a person was upset they’d been accosted while using the urinal for wearing a pro-cop t-shirt. And I thought, “do I want to eat at a place where the local patrons accost pro-police out-of-towners while they’re peeing”? Turns out, I do.)
- Ignore the Yelp reviewer who writes, “Normally I don’t like [whatever] but this was actually delicious.” I’m much more interested in the reviewer who says “I have traveled the world in search of the best [whatever] and this restaurant knows how to make it right.”
- Unless a restaurant is very new, be wary of places with few reviews. (I’m willing to cut new restaurants some slack when it comes to "good reviews."" It can take the kitchen and the staff some time to make everything run smoothly. So this is less a comment about new restaurants than it is a restaurant with very few reviews.)
- Look at the dates of the reviews. Are there any recent reviews? Are recent reviews consistently negative? This might indicate some change at the place, which – once again – can make any overall star rating a little unreliable. If no one has left a review in a while, I’m going to assume the place just isn’t memorable. Or that folks have stopped eating there. Either way...
- You can learn a lot from the beer and wine list. Is Stella Artois “the good beer”? That makes me question whether or not the place knows what counts as "good food." I don't even drink beer any more, but being a beer snob is a useful way to weed out places that will make you wish you'd been more of a food snob when choosing where to dine.
- Look to see if the reviewers locals or travelers. If they’re travelers, where are they from? A rave review about a pizza restaurant outside of New York from a New Yorker means more to me than a rave review of a pizza restaurant from a local. Sorry. That's just how it goes.
- Turn to sources other than Yelp. I’m a fan of Eater, for instance, and I read its recommendations for “the best of” in various cities. I just happen to carry Yelp around on an app in my pocket, and it makes finding places near my current location a little simpler.
I wouldn't describe myself as a "foodie." I can be a bit of a fussy eater; I've come to accept that. I don't like mushy food. I don't like bland food either. Nonetheless, I love to eat, and I think food decisions should be deliberate and thoughtful and above all pleasurable. So I spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for our meals, whether we are at home or on the road.
Once I find a place I love, I'm likely to return to it again and again and again. (And I do try to leave a Yelp review, no matter what.)