March192014

Open Season on Open Enrollment

For a man who’s eaten salted tuna sperm, Andrew Zimmern is awfully picky how he arrives at his food.

In a lengthy interview with Eater, the affable Travel Channel star affirmed he would sooner ask for seconds of a dish that sounds like a pretty good insult than rely on the first name, last initialed reviewers of Yelp and its University of Phoenix approach to food criticism. 

Specifically, he liberates his ill will toward the site as a travel utensil: “In today’s world of social media and the instant gratification nature of the internet, I don’t even have to type something in. I can just ask Siri what Mario Batali’s favorite restaurants in Seattle are. Why do I want to put it to risk? As I famously said before, I don’t like to waste meals.”

One of Zimmern’s leading complaints against Yelp has long been how frequently he hears reviewers violate the restaurant recommendation code through self-interested behavior. People clamoring for comped drinks and the like, he says, which is probably true because it has been since the beginning of the service industry.

But even with undeniable expertise like Batali holds, biases and limitations can still mince words. When you take Zimmern’s advice and search for the Iron Chef’s favorite restaurants in Seattle you find he names one owned by his family

If you’re not one to waste meals but are one to let logic run its course, which of these approaches is more likely to spoil the restaurant recommendation code? That so many Yelpers are blackmailing restaurants for free mozzarella sticks and its star rating is thus tainted, or that instead of naming an actual favorite, a chef might use an interview to drive diners toward a friend or family member?

Rightful suspicion that Batali violated the code can be put away when you see the collective recommendation of 900 people is to not dare miss his endorsement on a Seattle swing. Equivalent results, but one approach had to be lucky a celebrity’s ethics were in order to get there.

A small row of servers beneath Google has already been dedicated to articles rightly highlighting the problems with Yelp and the people who contribute reviews. The latest focus brought up by Zimmern, though, is narrower than those and perhaps the only one that’s categorically untrue: For all its faults, Yelp excels at conveniently getting you great food in an unfamiliar city.

The company’s “Real People” tag is stomach turning in its faux homespun credo; it’s a Palinism on the level of “real America” because a person’s lack of expertise doesn’t trump someone’s actual expertise. Yet seeking expert opinions over those of laymen is as obvious as it is difficult. You can read and learn which local blogs to trust over time, and you can confidently become an expert in a local food scene without ever looking at Yelp. It’s that you can’t reasonably be one in a city you’re going to for a long weekend. 

Zimmern then concocts a reasonable hypothetical where he’s after the best hot dogs in Chicago. Eschewing Yelp he instead offers hashtaging “Chicago dogs” on Twitter and searching “hot dogs” on Chicago Magazine for what he calls crowd-sourced expertise. This is a fine idea for hot dogs in Chicago, but for it to be a viable method it has to work for more than a city’s calling card food. Your airport cab driver can probably lead you to a good cheesesteak in Philadelphia, too.

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#Chicagodogs

So, let’s say you buck temptation and don’t eat exclusively hot dogs during your trip to Chicago and, in its place, Zimmern’s method is more reasonably applied to another lowbrow, highly portable foodstuff champion of the people, but doesn’t use the city as its namesake and doesn’t encase as much regional pride as it does sodium nitrate. Let’s say a donut. 

Searching for these on Chicago Magazine offers no donut list help outside of possible cabin decorations, and it’s only within a irrelevantly headlined piece can a donut enthusiast find that Doughnut Vault, Glazed and Infused, and Do-Rite Donuts are (apparently) at the top of Chicago’s gourmet donut scene.

Instead of finding a local source and hoping its power-wielding publisher or writer isn’t too close in the pan with specific chefs, or deducing a mystery blog isn’t dressing for public relations flack, or just something run by idiots, a person can go to Yelp and find the top three places to get donuts in Chicago: Doughnut Vault, Glazed and Infused Donuts, and Do-Rite Donuts. 

“The last thing I want to do is utilize a service where millions of people are chiming in, and the results are tainted,” Zimmern said in the interview. “Yelp to me is worthless.”

Cleveland is a writer in Philadelphia, including in his spare time, for Yelp.

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