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Feet to the Fire

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#1 robert brown

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 07:21 AM

One of e-Gullet's most intrepid and experienced international gastronomes recently told me that he will be dining at a restaurant I had recommended on the site. The restaurant in question, while listed in the Michelin Guide, has no stars and is not luxurious, but sits in an enchanting woodland location on a small country road. We had a delicious meal cooked single-handedly by the mother of the young girl who was doing the serving. I half-jokingly replied to the gastronome, who is making a tour of several of the best, more fancy addresses in Italy, that by choosing to visit this modest restaurant, he was holding my feet to the fire.

Recommending restaurants to people raises a host of concerns. It tests your connoisseurship and skill as an advisor. The information and opinions you give should be of recent vintage, thus forcing you to maintain your own gastronomic research. You need to tailor your recommendations to those you advise, sizing up their taste in food, prior experience, budget, and seriousness of purpose. And since every restaurant occasionally misfires, you must hope that your advisees will not be the victims of a hungover chef or a waiter whose hemmorhoids are acting up.

Once the recipient of our dining advice has acted upon it, most of us find it hard to accept feedback with equanimity. There are few ego boosts more powerful than hearing from a diner who was delighted by your recommendation. Yet it can be crushing to hear of a mediocre meal at a restaurant that you had highly recommended.

On the other hand, most of us occasionally ask someone else for advice on dining out. I have a coterie of friends and acquaintances whose advice I trust; when I go outside this group, I am invariably disappointed. Their opinions are usually more reliable than that of locals in areas where I choose to dine.

Is it worth the effort to share your dining history with others? If so, to what extent?

What risks are entailed in doing so?

Do you experience deep satisfaction when someone expresses gratitude for your restaurant recommendation that has hit the mark?

And do you feel exasperation, incredulity, anger or even fiscal responsibility when someone lets you know that your recommendation resulted in a bad meal at significant expense?

What kind of restaurants do you feel most comfortable in recommending: for example, modest or specialty ones versus world-famous, highly-rated ones?

What other aspects of restaurant-recommending strike you as important?

When your friends recommend restaurants, how do you evaluate or screen their advice before acting on it?

I aimed this note at amateur "reviewers". For the pros, how does being a critic-for-hire change your perspective on making restaurant recommendations privately?

Anecdotes welcomed.

#2 mamster

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 09:07 AM

Perhaps the stickiest part of the whole affair is dealing with the friend whose enthusiastic restaurant recommendations have failed to pan out again and again.

Because I'm a "pro," writing reviews for the Seattle Times, people are constantly asking me, "Where should I eat?" Talking to a real-life restaurant critic seems to make people forget that they have preferences, and that their preferences may be different from mine. I'm also hesitant to recommend a place that I don't consider the best of its class in town or unique in some other respect.

This is compounded, of course, by the fact that my reviews (I concentrate on inexpensive ethnic and neighborhood restaurants) are de facto recommendations from me. There are several downsides to this. First, my threshold for recommending a restaurant in the paper may be lower or higher than my threshold for recommending it to a particular person. I can't review every Thai restaurant in town using the best restaurants of Bangkok as a standard. The question I ask (I have to give every place a "recommended" or "NR" rating) is: does this Thai place do the neighborhood proud? Should people living nearby feel good about saying, "Hey, let's grab dinner at Udon Thani." Second, cheap-eats restaurants can let people down in ways that I don't care much about, such as decor.

The upside is that if someone acts on one of my recommendations and has a lousy meal, at least they didn't spend much. I don't dwell on it, but once I recommended a top French restaurant in New York to someone on eGullet, and they had a terrible time. I felt pretty bad about that and naturally concluded that my palate was unsophisticated, even though many other things could have gone wrong.
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#3 laura

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 09:39 AM

Unless I am very sure of the person in question, that I might be recommending
a restaurant to, I generally don't do it. This is due to the inherent variability of
the dining experience. My experiences in the past have proven to be of such a
mixed bag, ie when the person liked the restaurant, everything was great, when they didn't, I felt badly . Rather than subject myself to this discomfort, I
reign in my normal instinct to proselytize about something I really like..in this particular category.

#4 Lyle

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 10:02 AM

I find two major obstacles to cross when reccommending restaurants to others:

1)What is the recipient's dining experience and, therefore preference?

I would be horrible in a reviewer's position, not because of my obvious lack of writing (and formatting) ability, but my lack of thick skin. Enough diners panning my favorite pho stand would not make me angry or even hurt me emotionally, it would cause immense self-doubt, and to opine on restaurants must require supreme confidence. However, I don't reccommend to mass audiences, only to (usually) locals and the occasional stray traveller I meet at a bar. The problem with relative strangers is it would take the omnibus of information one gathers from those he knows intimately to be delivered immediately and assimilated before a potentially accurate reccomendation could be given.

EGullet provides examples from both ends of the spectrum. The few, or one-time user asks "Where's a good place to eat in [your town]? I want it to be romantic." My romantic place is a cramped, mid-range Italain joint that has a biblical menu and happens to have a very generous BYO policy. Is this romantic? Could you tell me the ten most romantic experiences in your life? Were any of those in restaurants? What is romantic food to you? Decor? Twenty pages later I may be slightly more informed than previously about preferences, or at least have a shoddy frame of reference. Still, those twenty pages are a picture of a moment in time, not the flowing of life required to really get to know a person. I could not confidently give what I anticipated to be an 'accurate' prediction, although I would try. If I failed, I would not regret my attempt.

The other example, again for the moment referring to EGullet, would be if an active user for whom I had a somewhat intimate knowledge of (at least voyuristically as I seldom post) asked me the same thing. I have read about their experiences in the past, seen their preferences and idiosyncrancies, and would have a much more stable foundation to make a reccomendation of [romantic Italian restaurant]. If I failed, I would regret it and feel that I failed. The safeguard to failure is...

Obstacle number two) The candidness of the reccomendation.

I feel I have a pretty close working knowledge of the subject receiving the reccomendation, so I say go to [romantic Italian restaurant]. I think it is my duty to describe this restaurant in pretty close detail as opposed to state "but that's just my opinion". Qualify my opinion with examples, my likes and preferences, in order to set the scene of my enjoyment. If the reccomendee feel I'm off my bat then most likely my reccomendation is not for him. It saves my face and his romantic night. This is an obstacle I should probably cross more often than I do. :wink:

If I have managed to get a good read on my subject and successfully articulate why I like [restaurant] but the diner still has a horrible time, I really would feel bad; sort of like failing a test I had studied for for weeks. my only other option would be to finally accept that I really am off my bat and I'm just not energetic enough to do that quite yet.
Rice pie is nice.

#5 Tonyfinch

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Posted 21 February 2003 - 08:20 AM

I am unclear why it is that people feel bad for longer than about a second if they reccomend a restaurant which is then not enjoyed. Why is it different to reccommending a film, or a CD or a book? If someone else enjoys it great, but if they don't-hey,well you know. So what? The fault might lie with them. In fact that's what most of us do, consciously or otherwise, when someone doesn't agree with our taste-convince ourselves that our taste is better than theirs. And why not?

#6 Jonathan Day

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Posted 21 February 2003 - 09:00 AM

I am unclear why it is that people feel bad for longer than about a second if they reccomend a restaurant which is then not enjoyed. Why is it different to reccommending a film, or a CD or a book?

I think it's because there is an element of risk and uncertainty in going to a new restaurant, especially if the investment is a substantial one. It's easy enough to put down an unrewarding CD or book, harder to walk out of a bad restaurant meal.

And the person you have advised may have taken someone in an important relationship (lover, employee, boss, client, customer, parent, child, etc.), based on your recommendation. A top range dinner for two in London can easily cost £300 ($450) once you've added up drinks, food, wine, coffee, transport, babysitting, etc.: for some of us, that is a significant cost. And opportunities for dining can be scarce; let's say you have travelled to a distant city and have only 2 days. You want your meals to be good.

This is one reason for qualifying restaurant recommendations, e.g. indicating "If you are going to relax and not worry too much about your food, you will enjoy restaurant X. But if you want cerebral, high-end food, you might prefer restaurant Z". And for taking a view on the tastes and experience of the person to whom you are giving the recommendation.
Jonathan Day
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#7 Tonyfinch

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Posted 21 February 2003 - 10:44 AM

Well its unfortunate of course if an expensive restaurant you recommend turns out to have delivered a duff meal, but if it does it is surely more the restaurant's fault than yours if you have already pre -agreed on the type and price of restaurant required and everyone agrees that you're knowledgeable in the field (why would they ask you otherwise?). There's something wrong with the people you're recommending to if they can't see that.

And maybe that's the point. It's not where you recommend or how you recommend it, but who you're recommending it to. We all know people who find fault in every restaurant they go to. It's a mission with them. To them only recommend "safe bets" so that their opinion can be demonstrated to be a foolish one if there's comeback. To those who don't like spicy foods you don't recommend that deeply authentic, highly spiced food at the local Pakistani joint, even if they ask you to recommend "an Indian"

In other words the key to this little problem is "Know Thy Recommendee".

#8 vmilor

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Posted 21 February 2003 - 02:42 PM

Lyle and Robert Brown seem especially to be very "conscientous" recommenders, asking quasi-existential questions before they embark on the task. If they fail they should not feel that bad esp. if the recommendee did not do his/her due diligence. Here in eGullet due diligence is quite easy, despite being one of the newer members I already know that I have similar taste with a sub-group with whom I am likely to consult. Due diligence in the real world is not very difficult either because you can always set up some little tests before reaching a conclusion about the person. I usually try to understand the following things by asking innocent questions. First, can we find a restuarant that both of us have been and did we both like or dislike it? Usually this is quite easy. Second, try to understand if your friend eats most things or whether he/she is pursuing a restricted diet. People are quite forthcoming in that too. Finally, I try to understand their experience and range of knowledge and whether they hold strong prejudices. Quite a few people in the US for instance, even some well to do people "hate" what they call a formal restaurant. Take my best friend in Berkeley for instance. He loves Chez Panisse cafe, his favorite. I bent over backward to take him downstairs which is a bigger kitchen and is by no means a stuffy place. Finally I convinced him for a monday night, not because it is cheaper on mondays(which it is), but because I told him that there are very few out of towners on mondays and he can put on his work clothes, i.e. jeans that his wife tells me my theoretical physicist friend wears 365 days a year. I also told beforehand the personnel in the restaurant to treat my friend real casually, whatever that means. Anyway it was a great meal, his favorite braised sonoma lamb with zin. was the main course. He looked happy but later the wife of my friend confessed that he was quite uncomfortable. I told this anectode because there are quite a few people like my friend, and also there are ones who are the very opposite, i.e. they will never confess that an unassuming blue collar trattoria can cook very well. It is a good idea to understand the person's biases. After I do my due diligence I am a happy camper 4 out of 5 times(but all restaurants can have off days too). Perhaps the percentage is even higher because if I decide that my taste is the opposite of the recommender's, I give up from eating in a place I was considering before and chances are that I would have been quite unhappy esp. in an expensive place, had I tried it. So quite a few times I may have been like the lucky guy who missed the plane that crushed but I will never know for sure and we give less credit to people who saved us from potentially bad happenings than those who steered us towards a positive experience.

#9 robert brown

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Posted 21 February 2003 - 06:38 PM

vmilor reminds us that there are errors of omission in addition to those of commission, in which we overlook and forget a restaurant that another person might like. You know it when someone tells you that they "discovered" a great restaurant that turns out to be the little gem you forgot to mention.

I find that much depends on the level or type of restaurant you recommend. Simple restaurants, often highly-specialized ones, tend to be the safest recommendations: lobster pounds or seafood in the rough, for instance. One establishment that I hesitate even to call a restaurant, but is well-known to New Yorkers heading up to Connecticut or the Berkshires in the Red Rooster on route 22 in Brewster. It is a seasonal place where you stand in line in front and buy hot dogs, burgers, fries, frozen custard and the like and eat them outside seated at picnic tables. Everybody seems to like it. On the other hand, the toughest recommendations are the restaurants comprising what I often call "the great, unwashed middle. Overseas these might be one-star Guide Michelin restaurants, bistrots and trattorias. Here it is whatever I am able to suggest whenever someone asks me where to eat in the Berkshires. Even at the highest end, it is hardly risk-free. Would I recommend the French Laundry after my one uneven dinner? Probably so, but with a caveat. Many non-gastronomic people I know may not appreciate making a big effort to go to El Bulli or spending $450. each to dine at L'Arpege. Sometimes it is a factor of assessing if a person asking you for an address or two "makes the grade", which is why I recommend a bistro over a three-star or Mary's Fish Camp instead of Le Bernadin. It is not so simple much of the time, this recommending restaurants business.

Edited by robert brown, 22 February 2003 - 07:29 AM.

#10 Tonyfinch

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Posted 22 February 2003 - 03:17 AM

But you don't just recommend in a vacuum do you? You ask them what kind of restaurant they're looking for, how much they want to spend, what sort of ambience they're after. Then you can give them a range of options within those criteria and tell them what you liked and disliked about the restaurants.

For instance if I was to recommend New Tayyab, my favourite Pakistani restaurant in London, I'd say "the food is fabulously authentic, its highly spiced ,the meats dahls and breads are fantastic, it's dirt cheap but don't bother with the seafood dishes and beware it gets jam-packed after 7 pm and can be very noisy and frantic"

So you give them info. which draws attention to the fact that good and bad can co-exist in a restaurant, and then they make their decision. If they then come back and say "the food was inauthentic, the spicing poor, the meat lousy" then you know something is wrong with THEM. They have no idea what they're talking about and are not recommendees to be bothered with.

If they come back and say "the food was great but it was very hot and noisy"-well yes, you told them that didn't you. Your recommendation still stands as valid.

#11 Yossarian

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Posted 22 February 2003 - 02:36 PM

I believe that recommendations are simply that: recommendations. If you ask me where I would go to eat, I will tell you. If you are not happy with my recommendations, tell me and we can discuss why you were not happy when I was. That discussion may reveal that your standards are different than mine, and in the future, you can ask someone else or I can attempt to make recommendations that meet your standards.

Also, vice versa.

Either way, there's no need to get upset. As a good friend once said, "That's why they make chocolate AND vanilla."

#12 Tonyfinch

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Posted 22 February 2003 - 05:36 PM

A related variation on this topic could be -how do you tell people you know that their recommendations are useless? I get really hacked off these days when friends who know damn well that I know loads more about restaurants than them insist on "their turn" to choose the restaurant and then insist on dragging us all along to a bog standard, overpriced, useless dump when all the while I know at least five places in the vicinity with far better food and which is far better value for money.

If I know someone who knows loads more about cars or computers or whatever than I do then I don't hesitate to ask advice and accord it weight and respect. Yet everybody eats so everybody thinks they're an expert on restaurants.I've got to the point where I'm going to have to insist that because I know better than them then we're going to have to eat where I say. If they don't like it, or won't accept it then maybe the eating out together part of our friendship has got to go.

Life really is too short to eat in restaurants you know are going to be crap before you even step inside them

#13 Jonathan Day

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Posted 23 February 2003 - 01:40 AM

This problem occurs a lot when you dine out on business. Reservations are often made by secretaries, based either on word of mouth or the fact that the boss went to restaurant X and came back in a good mood; therefore restaurant X must be good. In many business settings it is out of order to argue about your host's choice of restaurant. You have to exercise extreme caution in discussing the food in any depth. Equally, when you are travelling, it would be viewed as eccentric in the extreme to pitch up in Beijing or Buenos Aires and reject the locals' recommendations because you have found better on eGullet or Michelin.

There are ways around both this problem and the one Tony raises. You can gently establish yourself as an enthusiast (vs an expert); people sense this and tend to turn to you when it's time to dine out. A growing number of my clients, when they want to meet for lunch, ask for my recommendation rather than making a booking, because they know they will get interesting food. (I once took a very senior client through the worst bit of Soho to Le Pigalle; he thought it was delicious and has returned several times). And my assistant now has a list of recommended places for lunches and dinners, and this has become something of a resource for other assistants in the office. I think something like this happened to Fat Guy when he was with a large law firm.

It does require a degree of patience and humility to make this work, because if you simply proclaim your expertise people will insist on their idiosyncratic choices, which -- as Tony says -- are often dreadful. It even requires eating at horrible restaurants from time to time.

Edited by Jonathan Day, 23 February 2003 - 02:08 AM.

Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#14 Tim D

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 07:17 PM

As a retail store owner and someone who is in the public eye ten or more hours every day, I must add that the favor of a restaurant recomendation should be viewed as simply that, a favor, and if it doesn't pan out than no guilt should be felt by the person doing the recomendation. I am asked several times every week, mostly by tourists, to suggest places to eat, and I have five or six that I regularly suggest and if, after feeling someone out, I think they might be ready for that little hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place I'll clue them in. But no matter the outcome, I feel like I have given my best shot and they are at the mercy of the winds of fate.

It is much harder on the web, mainly because we have attached an inflated value to our reputations and no matter how hard we try, we are often defensive about anything that might jepordize our standing amoung the "foodie elite".
"An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup." - H. L. Mencken

#15 Explorer

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Posted 24 February 2003 - 09:08 PM

I have been on the 4 sides of these permutations, i.e. where I recommend and it's good/it's bad OR they recommend and it's good/it's bad.
What I have learned is to try to take advice from those you know share a similar level of experience and gastronomy appreciation. And even if it doesn't work out; don't take it personally on them.

As my tastes and preferences kept rising over the years, the circle of possible advisors kept getting smaller; but now with eGullet perhaps it will expand again in the right direction.

There's nothing more fulfilling than to recount the greateness of a specific experience with a friend that had recommended it in the first place. But on the other hand, we have learned to lower our expectations as a starting point, as a defensive mechanism. The upside is always welcome and the let-down becomes a bit easier.

It's somehow easier to give/receive recommendations on the top lists, although a near real-time update from a recent visit is most valuable, especially when it's discovered that the restaurant in question is in decline for e.g. if the star-chef has left and you didn't know about it. But the more difficult recommendations are about the not-so well known places that have something unique and valuable and that are the real discoveries. I value those more if the real story stands-up to the narrated experience. So, I value these "up-and-coming" recommendations that turn up as real gems even if the hit rate is 50/50.

Finally, I balance our actual destinations on a given trip: 50% sure ones; 25% newly recommended and 25% lucky ones that could surprise us.
"I hate people who are not serious about their meals." Oscar Wilde

#16 JAZ

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Posted 25 February 2003 - 07:23 PM

As a retail store owner and someone who is in the public eye ten or more hours every day, I must add that the favor of a restaurant recomendation should be viewed as simply that, a favor, and if it doesn't pan out than no guilt should be felt by the person doing the recomendation. I am asked several times every week, mostly by tourists, to suggest places to eat, and I have five or six that I regularly suggest and if, after feeling someone out, I think they might be ready for that little hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese place I'll clue them in. But no matter the outcome, I feel like I have given my best shot and they are at the mercy of the winds of fate.

I have the same experience working in a high-end cookware store near San Francisco's hotel and shopping district, and I do much what you do. There's a small alley lined with pretty good restaurants nearby, and I generally direct people there. It's not that they're the "best, " but a) there's a variety of places right in a row; b) menus are posted, so it's easy for people to see what they're getting into; and c) they are good.

Given a little more interaction and info from the customers, I'll sometimes suggest other places, but I don't generally recommend the off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall places unless it's abundantly clear that they would appreciate such places.

But it's different when friends are the ones asking. I do try to put more thought into my suggestions then, and I feel some anxiety that they might have a bad experience. But since I tend to know more about my friends' tastes, it's usually easier to make appropriate suggestions. But my experience is not with expensive high-end restaurants, so perhaps that makes it less stressful to make suggestions.