The Problem with Reviews

One thing we love to do here on the blog is review things. Over the course of hundreds of posts you’ve read our opinions on restaurants, hotels, cities, and other stuff that I’m not going to bother thinking of right now. Am I lazy? Yes! But that’s besides the point. The point is that today I’m going to talk about the many problems with writing an accurate and useful review with a focus specifically on restaurants.

The first one is varied tastes.

“If you don’t like the same things that I like then the food I recommend will be unpalatable to you.”

For instance if I love turkey sandwiches and you can’t stand turkey, that mouthwatering sandwich I lovingly praise probably isn’t for you. To get around this problem I try to give you enough information to decide on a dish based on your own preferences. When I say something like, “this is an excellent mac and cheese if you like the mushy artificial-tasting kind.” I mean that truthfully without any scorn. That really is a type of mac and cheese and there are plenty of people who really like it that way. Sometimes I’ll recommend foods to people who might not expect to like them, acknowledging the dislike and positing that this food will transcend it. So watch out when I say something like, “Even if you don’t like mushrooms, you should try truffles.” Furthermore, taking this kind of advice is a great way to find new foods that you like.

Another issue in the wide realm of varied tastes is differing thresholds of enjoyment. If I enjoy even mediocre Indian food and you can’t stand anything but the very best, all my opinions on Indian food are going to seem inflated to you. It doesn’t mean that I can’t recognize the difference between good and bad Indian food, pizza, dessert, etc. but in my mind they already have a leg up on the competition. I’ll try to let you know when I have this kind of bias.

Varied Quality Within a Menu

“If a recommend a restaurant it probably just means I’m recommending the one dish I ate there.”

I rarely have the opportunity to try a substantial portion of a menu. For something like Busboys and Poets in Washington DC or Butter is Better in Chiang Mai where my visits easily make it to double digits I’m pretty confident in my suggestions. But going somewhere once? There’s a lot of room for error. To give you some idea, Rachel and I went to a place on Koh Lanta called The Frog. I ordered the vegetarian lasagna and it was some of the best lasagna I’ve eaten in my life. Rachel got the pesto. It was good, but nothing special. It certainly didn’t seem better than many other pesto pastas we’ve gotten on this trip for half the price. So how do I rate such a restaurant? Well, I try to make the extent of my experience clear in my reviews, but I really can’t rate the whole restaurant without more experience. The only thing you can be sure of is that The Frog’s the place to go for wonderful lasagna…

Temporal Differences in Quality

…except you can’t, ignore that last part. Strike it from the record. Even if we assume that we both would find the exact same lasagna equally transcendent (which we can’t!), we can’t be sure that the lasagna doesn’t vary in quality over time. Fruits and vegetables go in and out of season, individual chefs get nights off or quit, ingredients raise or lower in price and get substituted, sometimes it’s just someone’s off day and an assistant throws in too much salt or a waiter brings out your food too slowly. In reality even a dish you’ve had ten times might not be very good on the eleventh. This very thing happened to us at Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia. Rachel and I were some of this place’s number one evangelists. We would go as often as our arteries could handle. Somehow I would always finish eating these massive, juicy burgers feeling energetic and refreshed. And somehow, the final time we went before leaving for Korea, it just wasn’t quite as good. It was still a great burger, but that magic was gone. If a restaurant has a seasonal menu, the dish I recommend might not even be there when you visit. Do not despair! Seasonal menus tend to combat temporal variance by using the best available ingredients instead of bad versions of the same ingredients. So hopefully, a good restaurant with a seasonal menu will be good all year round.

Context Matters

“If I eat some great food after a terrible day, you better believe that’s going to negatively impact my appreciation of it.”

There are so many things that can actually affect taste that are external to the actual ingredients in a dish and I mean it when I say that your perception of the taste, for all practical purposes, is the real taste. There is no taste outside our perception of it. The ambiance, design of the dish, plating of the food, background music, secondhand smoke, noise level, sinus congestion, and any number of other things can all have serious consequences for the flavor. And even if you magically make constant the weather, the dinner companions, your mood, and everything else, different people will react to the same stimulus differently. What I find elegant plating might seem drab and boring to you. Now I’ll admit that usually the ingredients and preparation seem most important, but don’t underestimate context. It’s like the hidden part of the iceberg that makes all the difference to your ship.

So… reviews are useless?

Ack! Wait! That’s the wrong idea entirely. Reviews are like science, there is a lot of room for error, but they are the best method we having for discovering truth. Having an awareness of what errors might exist and an ability to read reviews critically allows you a greater understanding of how much weight to give a particular review based on your individual preferences. On this blog though, I’ll try to do some of the work for you and write with bias problems always in the corner of my mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge