Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why People Read Restaurant Reviews

I'm amazed to discover that my Google map of Obscure Street food in Eastern Jackson Heights has had nearly 100,000 views. I haven't updated the map in ages, yet people keep streaming in.

It reminds me of when I wrote my first book, a guidebook to lesser-known NYC eateries, which earned great reviews from journalists who clearly didn't know and hadn't tried any places mentioned in the book. On what basis were they praising my work? Well, they enjoyed the vicariousness of reading about interesting-sounding places.

I nearly killed myself rechecking every single place before handing in my manuscript to ensure that my opinions were as timely as possible, given publishing's long lead time. Checking 150 restaurants, even briefly, is a herculean undertaking. But I'm not sure it was worth the effort. The fact is, I could have invented half the restaurants in the book, and it would have received the exact same reception. Over the course of my career, I've learned that while a few great finds passionately reviewed may ignite a furor and get lots of people to actually go eat somewhere (Jackson Diner, Sripraphai, Kabab Cafe, Charles Southern Kitchen, Mississippi BBQ Shack, etc., in my case), the vast majority of restaurant review readers never visit the places written about. They read solely to be transported.

Rereading my notes on the Jackson Heights street food map, I guess they are pretty entertaining. But isn't it daft to constrict one's writing to a niche as confining as food when people are just reading along for the writing, anyway? 

UPDATE: Ah, I see the problem. Google, suckily, doesn't include a year in its "last updated" date. So as time passes, the map never seems more than 11 months out of date, and that's why no one realizes how out of date the damned thing is. I suppose I can either add a disclaimer...or else eat a hundred tacos and update the info. I wish there was some way to open up the map, wiki-style, for marking up and comment. It's so 1998!

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