The Food and Wine Hedonist

leave your inhibitions at the door

Who’s Your Restaurant Sherpa?

When we were on vacation in Mexico, we had what was arguably our worst dinner experience ever.  The service was hateful and lazy, the drinks non-existent, and the shrimp hovered suspiciously close to the griddle but never really touched it.    All this because my brother didn’t have a Sherpa.

What’s a Sherpa?

Anyone who climbs Mt Everest, or any other major mountain for that matter, doesn’t do it alone.  They get physically and mentally prepared for the climb, but they rely on someone to guide them.  That someone has done before and is familiar with the ins and outs of the location and shows the climber the way to go. That’s a Sherpa.

sherpa teasherpanet


If you were looking for a restaurant that Sherpa was usually a friend or an acquaintance. But for it to work right, you had to make sure that the Sherpa knew what they’re talking about.   You’d start off small – try out their lunch recommendation because that’s a smaller investment.  Once you safely survive with your gastrointestinal system intact, you’re willing to take a flyer on a recommendation for a date or other special occasion.

For local restaurants, the system usually worked fine. But there were limitations when it came to places while traveling.  What if you don’t know anyone in the city you’re visiting?   Or you can know someone, but not really know whether they have taste.   One time I had to travel for work and a coworker who lived at the destination suggested this –


Nope.  Rick’s Astley’s gonna give you up before I go in there.

If you’re staying at a hotel, the concierge usually had a stack of menus and can often get you a reservation.  The problem is that they often recommend based on the kickback they got from the restaurant more than its merits.

Guidebooks and other publications were an option, but only if there was one for where you were visiting. But what if you were visiting Cozad, Nebraska?

Cozad sign golfcoursereankingcom


I’ve actually dined at the finest restaurant in Cozad.  It’s name began with “Mc” and ended with “Donald’s”.

The other problem with guidebooks is that they could never tell you the hottest new places.  Though I suppose any place in a city you’ve never been to is going to be a new place.


And Then Came The Internet And Smartphones
Now you can just hop on your phone wherever you are and find about restaurants through apps like Yelp Trip Advisor, and Urbanspoon.  They have different filters so you can restrict results by proximity, price range, cuisine, etc.

A big difference between the sites is who’s actually doing the reviewing.   The ones that have user reviews cover more areas as well as offer more reviews per for each restaurant.  The only downside is that these people could be doing the recommending…

tourist picsharkcom


Here’s how those three sites cover Isalita, one of my favorite restaurants in Ann Arbor.

Yelp – This is the most popular as it has reviews by locals that cover everything from restaurants to auto mechanics to furnace repair. There are 200 reviews for Isalita, including many that dinged it because portion sizes are small.  Ummmm… it’s tapas-style.

Trip Advisor – Like Yelp, the reviews are from other user and, as the name implies, it’s focused on trips – hotels, restaurants, sightseeing, etc.   Trip Advisor is really good for destinations in foreign countries that Yelp and other sites don’t cover.  Since Ann Arbor’s not exactly what one would call a tourist destination, there are only 54 reviews for Isalita.   As I highlighted in my post about that worst meal, you’re really taking a leap of faith that the reviewer has a functioning set of taste buds.

Urbanspoon – This is my favorite one as it also includes reviews from food critics and bloggers. (And yes I realize bloggers are regular schmoes, but some of us can actually be trusted.)  Since it’s not as popular, Isalita only has 20 reviews.   Which I suppose is fine since it’s not filled with comments by people who have no business giving reviews.

I still prefer personal recommendations from reputable people.  But in the absence of a good Sherpa, I’ve gotten pretty good with gaming the system.  If I have to use Yelp or Trip Advisor, I choose restaurants that have key words and phrases like “loud,” “long wait for a table” and “small portions.”

Another good rule of thumb is to look at the pictures of the users as you scroll through the reviews.   I always pick the oldest, whitest, out-of-touch-looking person I can find.   Preferably from the Midwest.

And do the exact opposite of what they say.

Who’s your Sherpa?



About thefoodandwinehedonist

I don't know everything about the world of food and wine, but I'm not going to let a small detail like that stop me from blogging about it.

15 comments on “Who’s Your Restaurant Sherpa?

  1. ksbeth
    March 24, 2015

    usually i rely on word of mouth, both locally and from the locals when afar. most often works out pretty well –

  2. Max D.
    March 24, 2015

    That’s tricky. I usually look for a Food Co-Op, local farmer’s market, or yes, even a Whole Foods or equivalent. I get a few basics and at the check out, I ask, “So, where’s a good place to eat around here?” It’s not fool-proof, it’s got a high degree of snobbery, and there’s always a chance someone will steer me to the local Tofu Shack, but I usually get a good tip or two on the local non-franchise food scene. I can always cross-reference any recommendations with Urban Spoon, my favorite online Sherpa. I don’t get to travel that much, but every town I’ve visited in the last year or so, from Boston to Grand Rapids to Rochester, Minn to Decorah, Iowa, will have at least one decent (if not great)local micro-brew pub. And farmers’ market/food co-op. Oh, and I noticed that a lot of towns have local foodie magazines, so there’s that.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 24, 2015

      I dont know bout the coop thing.. You will def get the tofu shack -aka lunchroom and Sevas – around here. But youd also get Grange Old Town Pacific Rim and other townie faves I can do without. My loudness search will get u to Mani…

      • Max D.
        March 24, 2015

        Definitely. I can sniff out the Tofu Shacks a mile away. There’s a Seva’s equivalent in every college town in the midwest. I’m going to try the loudness test next. It’s often a roll of the dice for me at this point. We stopped at this “Spanish tapas” plce in Grand Rapids, and there was nothing Spanish nor tapas-esque about it, but got good online reviews. I knew I was in for a meal of horrors when they screwed up the pan con tomate. How, in the name of all that’s holy, can anyone screw that one up?

  3. Max D.
    March 24, 2015

    I’m going to Muskegon, Michigan (is there another Muskegon?) this weekend. I’ve only driven through there, bu this time I’ll actually be there two full days. Let’s see what my e-Sherpas can do for me.

  4. reversecommuter
    March 24, 2015

    Torn between “rick astley” reference and “restaurant sherpa” – might have to use both in sentences – BRILLIANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 24, 2015

      Ha, thx! The astley line just popped in mu head and i’m really surprised i hadnt thought of it before.

  5. Michelle Williams
    March 25, 2015

    I strongly rely on recommendations from friends, sometimes a good review will get me in the door.

  6. a2sicilian
    March 26, 2015

    I did not have a good experience with Yelp. I joined and wrote a review of a local restaurant; let’s say it was a C+ review. Very well written, of course :). Yelp then informed me that it’s computerized weeding out system decided my review didn’t reflect the general view of its membership, or some such nonsense. Huh? Needless to say will never use again. Also much younger generation on Yelp, so they’ll say things like, “Never had dinner here, but the fried calamari at the bar war was good!”

    In general, the problem with these sites is that experience can really vary by visit. (In fact I read an interview with a chef one time who noted that the hardest thing to do in a restaurant is maintain consistency with every diner experience.) It’s why real reviewers will visit a restaurant three times before writing a review.

    I usually check out TripAdvisor. Yet I do take others reviews with a grain of salt; their lifestyle, experience, and tastes may be very different than mine. I often look at the worst reviews, just to see what could go wrong :). Although usually the middle reviews (not the four stars or the one stars) will give you the best idea of what to expect.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      March 27, 2015

      Then you really should check out Urban Spoon… As for fried calamari at the bar, that’s definitely not just younger people. Remember, we’re in Michigan

    • PJ Rice
      June 4, 2015

      Yelp’s best asset is the photos….I can spot the restaurants I will like by looking at the food….I couldn’t figure out how the highest rated sushi restaurants seemed so lame to me on Yelp.Finally, i took my Japanese friend to a couple of them and she validated- completely mediocre sushi…Yelp is useful only to a very discerning eye…

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This entry was posted on March 24, 2015 by in Ann Arbor, Dining, Travel and tagged , , , , , , .
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