always trust the experts

Matt Yglesias, quite correctly, bemoans TripAdvisor’s obviously wrong and inexplicable decision to name San Diego and Las Vegas as the pizza capitals of the United States. Allow me to share a story.

I am from Long Island and growing up I ate a lot of Chinese food (or, you know, AmeroChinese, but you get the idea) and some of it was really quite good. Then I went to college in rural New Hampshire. The college town there had one Chinese place, and I remember early in my freshman year my hallmates deciding to order a bunch. The food arrived, and it quickly became apparent that my opinion of the food – mediocre, at best – differed vastly from their much higher appreciation. Turns out, a few pointed questions later, that many of my hallmates were from points Midwest, rural, and/or simply parochial and had never had Chinese food before. Hard to begrudge them their first MSG-laden noodle pile.

This really gets at the heart of the major potential pitfalls of a lot of these new rating sites; sites which, I must say, I really in general quite appreciate and use a lot, Yelp and TripAdvisor in particular (the latter having been a surprisingly reliable guide to lodging and food in Rajasthan). Here in DC, Yelp is pretty damn reliable – so reliable, in fact, that my wife and I have nicknamed the site “Fred,” as in our unbearably smug friend Fred Yelp, who is insufferable both because he always has a recommendation of where to eat everywhere you go and because he’s always right. Damn you, Fred!

But the thing is that TripAdvisor and Yelp reviewers are a definitively non-uniform group. In Washington, DC and the surrounding environs, most of the people reviewing Korean restaurants are Korean-American and therefore trust them completely. But in Las Vegas and San Diego, most of the people reviewing pizzerias on TripAdvisor are more often then not people who have never been to the Pizza Belt and therefore have never truly experienced great pizza. Similarly, TripAdvisor reviews are reliable in a place as far-flung as India because most of the reviewers are Western travelers intrepid enough to travel without the benefit of a tour group and are writing for the same audience, whereas TripAdvisor reviews in American cities are largely written by non-residents. You should be using Yelp for American restaurants.

This is all to say that Yelp and TripAdvisor, like all good tools can be very effective when used intelligently and in the correct situations, but are not panaceas. Yelp has helped us find great places a little further off the interstate on long road trips that the locals really love; however, it’s useless when trying to find edible Southeast Asian food in northeast Florida. And there’s no substitute for reading the reviews.