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Emily L Winters in Florida

January 24, 2019

How do you decide what to order when you find yourself in an unfamiliar restaurant? It’s a subject for great debate. Burnt My Fingers wrote about fortuitous discoveries and how they are fewer and further between in this current internet era. And I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about how my gut has steered me wrong on more than one occasion.

Or maybe the problem isn’t with my base instincts, but rather overthinking the challenge of what to eat when I find myself in a new eatery.

Which is why I like to go out with trusted friends. When I don’t have a real-life trusted friend to accompany me, like my buddy Celina, I’m lucky enough to have hundreds of trusted friends on Yelp. It’s true. I know that if Angelique V likes a Chinese restaurant, or Steve K recommends a taco truck, or James L gushes about a Korean spot, they are all going to be solid picks. And if they have dishes they recommend, that’s what I’m going to order.

Even with this extensive network, I still occasionally run into a blank. Well, Emily L has been on vacation in Florida, and she submitted the following guest post about narrowly avoiding a brunch disaster.

Too much food research?

While New York is suffering through negative degree weather, I am down in Florida enjoying sunshine, beaches, and time with my family. And of course, plenty of great food.

My aunt and my uncle have been keeping up with the eggs benedict challenge, so of course brunch was high on our priority list of things to do. We spent all Monday night combing through websites, photos, menus, and Yelp reviews. After carefully researching our options, we decided on the most highly rated brunch restaurant in the area, ironically named Crave (just like the best burger restaurant in Albany).

With an initial view of the menu, I intended to order the traditional eggs benedict. However, after reading all of the extensive reviews, I changed my mind to go for the cobb salad. We ended up waiting almost forty minutes to get into the restaurant. When we were finally seated, the list of specials was almost overwhelming. I held strong and got the cobb.

This opened up a discussion between us. My aunt ordered the traditional eggs benedict. As she explained her food philosophy, “If if I am at a restaurant for the first time, I get something I have had before. This is the best way to compare restaurants through the same dish. If I go back, I get something else.” My uncle went for the corned beef hash. As he explained, “I open up a menu, decide what looks good, and go for it. I rarely go in knowing what I want.” No research, no substitutions, just gut instinct. My mom also went with the cobb, but as she explained,”I got salad because I like salad and I wanted something healthy. And then I put blue cheese and bacon on it.” The boyfriend went with one of the specials of the day, duck tostadas in addition to a giant chocolate chip pancake, pointing out, “specials are fresh and you usually can’t get them any other time. I would rather have a special dish to remember; I’m always a sucker for a special even if it is not what I want. I only look at pictures, I rarely look at reviews online.”

The cobb was fantastic, but since I was with a group, I got to try all of their dishes. If I had gone with my gut instinct with the eggs benedict, I would have been disappointed. The bread was soggy and the hollandaise was too lemony. The hash was too salty for my taste and did not have enough potatoes. The cobb was massive and fresh. However, the winner was clearly the duck tostada. I was not disappointed in the cobb, but I wonder if I would have gone with my boyfriend’s philosophy instead of letting the internet decide for me, I would have had a better dining experience.

But the best part? The amount of scheming and laughter we all had together about brunch. Oh yeah, and the fact that we missed out on the twenty inches of snow in Albany.

Doing some advance research can be a double edged sword. Surely, the hype machine of the internet can build up expectations, only to have them come crashing down. On the other hand, menus are so large, and often a fair to middling place can have a knockout dish or two. I think about Swifty’s and the deep fried buffalo burger, or Ralph’s Tavern and its truly incredible mozzarella with melba.

And then there were the tourists who happened to stumble into one of the best Sichuan restaurants in America at the time, a totally inauspicious place on a side street of San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was there, likely enjoying some cold diced rabbit in chili oil, and I heard the gentleman order sweet and sour pork. His female companion got the sweet and sour chicken.

It was the making of an American culinary tragedy. But this was back in the day before everyone was walking around with access to all the world’s information in their pocket. These days you can’t make that excuse.

I’m not one for letting the internet make my decisions, but I fully support the notion of walking into a restaurant informed about what it does well. From there, it’s up to you. But maybe you disagree. Don’t be shy. Let’s hear it.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2019 3:24 pm

    My post was on best restaurant discovered by accident, wa slightly different tack. I would love to write about two restaurants that fascinated me in SF’s Chinatown during my recent visit. A duck place had the biggest duck of all the ducks hanging in windows, and another place had great and funny replies from the owner to Yelp reviews. Both of these had only a couple of dozen reviews each and were within a block of Good Mong Kok with its thousands of reviews, so I could have “discovered” them except that I didn’t have the chance to get back and eat there. Next time.

    If I am in a new-to-me Sichuan place, I will of course order some offal dish. For Shanghainese, twice cooked pork. Most cuisines have a signature dish that can prove the worth of the restaurant serving it. Jim Leff’s “Eat Anywhere” app, for iOS and Android, will tell you what these dishes are for each cuisine.

    • albanylandlord permalink
      January 26, 2019 3:19 am

      Thanks for the advice on Eat Anywhere!

  2. albanylandlord permalink
    January 26, 2019 3:16 am

    I’m with Emily and Daniel in always questioning the tradeoff of my research. Is it really worth the time I put into it? Do I eliminate the joy of spontaneity? My most memorable experiences are the ones when I find something unexpectedly wonderful – but I have to wade through a bunch of mediocrity to find it if i’m being random. Plus Daniels thoughts about average restaurants sometimes having exceptional dishes strikes true and I don’t want to miss on on that greatness.

    I try to compromise so I can still delight myself. Last week I went to City Beer Hall and had one of my best meals in a year. I didn’t look at reviews ahead of time for specific dishes and wasn’t familiar with almost anything on the current menu. But I knew that they have some of the best food in Albany and I have enjoyed enough of Chef Dimitrios’ food over the years to look for dishes with his inter-cuisine inspiration. My wife and I were unexpectedly wowed by all three of our dishes. So I got to have my duck pastrami slider and eat it too.

    But if I’m picking a restaurant out of the blue I want to help my odds with Yelp. And If I’m picking from a large menu at a place I don’t really know I want to increase my odds and will try and research dishes ahead of time.

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