The World’s Worst Restaurant Recommendation

I’m a bit trepidatious in discussing the following topic, for reasons that should soon be apparent. My job here is not to offend, but to question, and if I’ve accomplished the former, rather than the latter, then I haven’t done my job very well.

There is one type of restaurant recommendation that makes me shudder every time I hear it. It usually goes down like this:

Me: What do you think of this Mexican restaurant?
Friend: I’ve only eaten there once, and it was okay. But every time I go by, I see a lot of Mexicans eating in there.

In the above example, you can replace “Mexican” with any other ethnic variation, and I’d still have the same response – me doing a double take, as if my brain had been suddenly doused in ice water.

The basic premise of my friends response strikes me as a bit off, as if a collective group of people, based solely off of their race, will primarily congregate in a restaurant based solely on the quality of said restaurant.

Every time I hear this sort of recommendation, my mind races to the converse argument – if tourists want to find a good restaurant in a America, they need only search for the busiest American restaurant that happens to be filled with Americans. As this would invariably lead them to TGIFriday’s in Manhattan, I can see no good from this type of thinking.

(Actually, the better argument would be finding an American restaurant in Tokyo or Mexico City, but if anecdotal evidence is any guide, American expatriates tend to congregate in local bistros, pubs, and taverns more than the local KFC or Pizza Hut.)

The use of “I see a lot of ____________ eating there,” is a culturally peculiar recommendation as well. It’s as if the person giving said recommendation is under the belief that the collective status of the customers’ race is a far more significant variable in rating the quality of a restaurant than an individual experience. That an individual’s (oftentimes incorrect) perception on fifty-plus people whose only tie to one another is eating at the same restaurant and possibly, possibly sharing the same heritage is a better indication on how good the food may be than actually going to the counter and ordering the special of the day.

And let’s talk about heritage, because ethnic enclaves in any major city are never as simple as “this is the Mexican neighborhood” or “this is Chinatown”. Even presuming that everyone in a Mexican neighborhood is, in fact, Mexican (which is itself a huge presumption), there’s still a great difference between a person who can trace their heritage to the state of Sonora, and one who can trace their’s to Oaxaca. Each will have a different perception and desire surrounding food, and what constitutes “good”. Thanks to regional differences, we here in the United States can’t decide what constitutes good Barbecue. What makes us believe that 50 people who might come from the same country can tell us what constitutes a good molé?

When it comes to restaurant recommendations, it would be for the better if we dismissed how busy a place may or may not be as a basis for our choice. Popularity has never been a good indication of quality. The better option, as always, would be to actually visit the restaurant in question and draw your own conclusion. Barring that, ask someone whose opinion you trust.