Tuesday, April 22, 2008

OpenTable to hoi polloi: How was your meal?

Some time back, I ranted about calmly discussed my opposition to OpenTable's move to include user comments in restaurant listings.

A pointless act, I argued. Dining out is such a subjective experience; one man's delicious pasta feast is another man's nightmare of gluey fettucine, diluted pomodoro sauce and recycled salad. Which diner do you trust?

OpenTable's restaurant pages already include reviews from Gayot, Zagat's and
BoMag, which between them provide a reasonable cross-section of review experiences, both customer-generated and editorial.

So there's really no reason to ask OpenTable users to chime in with their opinions (other than corporate haste to echo the current marketers' mantra that social media is the shiny new way to engage customers).

Nevertheless, today I had two emails from OpenTable asking me to provide feedback on recent resto visits. Here's the first part of their survey form:

I like some of the adjectives they chose to define the star rating: "memorable," "enjoyable" and "needs work" are pretty distinct. But "a rare find" is ambiguous; i
s it a "rare find" if you go every month? Is it a "rare find" if the place is always busy, or only if no-one knows about it?

What about its rarity in the market? Is Elephant Walk "rare" by default, because it's the only French-Cambodian restaurant in Boston?

The second subjective section looks like this:

The problem here (apart from the dubiousness of phrases like "Hot Spot") is that some of these options only apply to specific diners. Would you check off "Good for Groups" unless you dined with a group? Or "Kid-Friendly" unless you'd had first-hand experience of the waitstaff's attitude toward your rugrats?

Does that mean that a place that actively welcomes families, but doesn't get as much feedback from them, will appear not to be kid-friendly?

(And you know me: I prefer not to have
people talking near my food, so I'm more likely not to encourage group dining, especially at places I enjoy. Keep 'em away, I say.)

Is "Neighborhood Gem" only valid if it's in your neighborhood (as
Tu y Yo is to us), or does it refer to any place within a clearly defined section of town? And if the latter, isn't every restaurant eligible for that category, regardless of location?
Is L'Espalier a "Neighborhood Gem"? When it reopens in the new Mandarin Oriental hotel this fall, will it still be a "Neighborhood Gem"? (Word on the street is No, but we can hope.)

Back to "Hot Spot." Their translation (I assume): "New place getting a ton of attention."

My translation: "New place getting a ton of attention. I give it six months."

The main issue with these classifications is their ambiguity, of which the first item, "Fit for Foodies," is a prime example. Does it mean the restaurant has unusual ingredients and dishes for the culinarily curious? Or that the menu choices are not so inventive but use organic or locally sourced ingredients? Or that the portions are gargantuan?
Not everyone defines "foodie" in the same way. So how useful a classification is this?

Similarly, "Notable Wine List" could mean an impressive selection of wines by the glass. Or it could mean a wide variety of prices. Or it could mean rare vintages only recognizable to dedicated oenophiles. Different customers, with different expectations, will make their own assumptions about the definition. And someone's likely to be disappointed with the restaurant and dubious of OpenTable's credibility.

So what descriptions would be more useful (read: useful to me)? How about:
  • Great for people-watching

  • Cute waitstaff

  • Hip, eclectic playlist

  • Has boudin

  • Serves random amuse-bouches

  • Tables not squished together

  • Barstaff understand that a true Martini is served really really cold
How about you? What categories would you find useful?

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Blogger El said...

The adjectives are a little reminiscent of those used in the All Music Guide. Music may be a more suitable medium for this type of classification, since food is a little more tangible. You can pretty much figure out from the menu whether a restaurant is trying to be adventurous, traditional or economical.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Ahoy Polloi said...

A recent ill-advised visit to Mantra illustrated for me the well known axiom, "random amuse bouche does not a good meal make." A telling category for me would be "fresh, warm bread basket." If that appears, all other sins can be forgiven. Also, "super-silky cool creme with properly browned and crisp brulee" would be helpful.

9:45 AM  
Blogger LimeyG said...

Good point on the bread basket! A personal refinement would be "Bread selection includes something that reminds me of my grandmother's fruited tea loaf." Sel de la Terre hits the spot there.

9:14 AM  
Anonymous phreak4phood said...

Limeyg, does every reviewer who contributes to Gayot & Zagat share your same exact perspective? I'm all for anything that gives people a voice, be they your peer or beneath you (as you obviously think most people are). If you don't like it, don't read it. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!

6:01 PM  
Blogger LimeyG said...

Oh, Mr. 4food! If you read a little more closely, you'd see that I don't read the user-created listings exactly because not everyone shares the same perspective. That's my whole point. Brave attempt at trolling, though. Well done.

9:11 PM  

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