leave your inhibitions at the door
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.
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?
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…
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?