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General Discussion

Chowhoundish Use of Food Sites

Jim Leff | Aug 9, 201409:02 AM     11

In another thread, people are complaining that Yelp is mindless fluff, or nearly entirely so. I also hear people complaining about how Chowhound has more mindless fluff than before (my first response to that: Green M&Ms (http://jimleff.blogspot.com/2013/04/l...).

I feel that these complaints reflects a misunderstanding about chowhounding (lower case "c"....there are plenty of chowhounds in the world who've never heard of this place), and how such sites serve that pursuit. I thought I'd give my perspective.

Chowhounding, to me, is all about winnowing. There are a zillion restaurants, and I want to find a good one. I walk/drive around, using various strategies to winnow until The One appears.

Eateries themselves are almost entirely mindless fluff. 95% are unthinkable. Even among the remaining more-or-less-satisfactory 5%, few are truly worth seeking out. It's a huge winnowing project. And there is no resource that can do ALL the winnowing for you - i.e. offer you a direct sure-fire connection to The One. For one thing, The One might have lost its chef....or be having a bad day...or have landmines on the menu....or simply not be to your taste or adequately supply the sort of experience currently craved.

Chowhound.com (capital "C"!) was never about telling you where to eat. It's simply an advanced winnowing tool for your arsenal, and it was always assumed that you LIKE to do this winnowing. Whatever Yelp's intentions, in the right hands it, too, can be an effective chowhounding tool, because it also helps winnow, even though there's way way more there you have to winnow through (more bathwater but also more babies). It can help you cut down the field without leg work. NEVER eat where they tell you to eat! That's a newbie mistake! Just use the tool to gather raw/crude candidates for your own subsequent smart winnowing! And if you imagine for a second that you can gather candidates just as quickly/efficiently within the actual real world landscape, you're seriously deluded. You just can't! And that's why it's a useful chowhounding tool, albeit a crappy recommendation engine.

Food web sites (and guide books, and blogs, and etc. etc.) aid your winnowing. They are not about telling you where to eat. It's your job to winnow the raw/crude candidates once you've meta-winnowed other people's winnowing. You can't escape the winnowing. And why would you want to? That's the fun and the challenge of chowhounding!

This is key: neither site is nearly as random and raw as the actual landscape. If you conceive and use these tools in that light, you'll get much more value out of them, IMO.

I also offered some specific tips for using Yelp, which I'll repeat. Someone commented that while Yelp might have good tips in some places, it's a total loser in Philadelphia. I replied that the pockets of value on Yelp are not a function of city-by-city. It's finer-grained than that, and there are lots of very different constituencies using the site. For example, any Asian or South Asian restaurant (or take-out spot) near any reasonably large sized University with a grad school will be reliably reviewed and rated on Yelp. Same for places of a given nationality in a neighborhood hosting an insular community of that nationality. Never use Yelp for mainstream types of places (slice pizza, takeout chinese, italian delis, famous places)***

One uses ones chowhounding skills to psyche out the sorts of places that will be smartly reviewed on Yelp, and to find the smart reviewers. Online or off, it's all about winnowing, and whenever I fail to winnow successfully, I blame my own winnowing - aka chowhounding - skills, rather than the data pool.

***- EXCEPT: definitely do look at the food pictures for such places (just ignore ratings/reviews). I voraciously scout through food pics on Yelp. It's easy to quickly spot ordinary looking slices and dry tacos in spite of rave reviews. It's also easy to find great looking food in underrated places (everyone knows Yelp overrates, but it's useful to remember that they also underrate).

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