I've always resisted turning to sites like Yelp for restaurant recommendations in favor of the opinions of experts. The best restaurants, cafés, and other venues, I've always been convinced, are best divulged by people I've deemed to be experts—by staff writers at magazines and Web sites I like, or by friends with focused obsessions on the best beignets, street tacos, obscure cocktails, and other essential things. Or, alternately, if the experts in question are too snobby to recognize the ordinary brilliance in front of them, the best things fly below the radar altogether. The more plebeian types of superlative things are either very easy or very hard to find or they're expressly unpublicized or they're so plain and to the point that they escape acclaim. Until recently, my general aversion to review sites has approached the status of personal gospel.
On Sunday night, after a day of great eating with Matt and Nathan and Richard—Prime Meats for brunch and Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies for a snack—we had a vague idea to look for dinner in Queens. I hopped onto Yelp on Matt's iPhone to do research. Matt* has taken to claiming that we've never been steered to a bad restaurant by Yelp. After thinking about it for a little while in the wake of our Sunday dining experience, I realize that he's right. I can't remember a single highly-recommended place on Yelp with multiple reviews that wasn't good.
On Sunday we settled on Taste Good Malaysian in Elmhurst Queens, a restaurant with very strong reviews, as an appropriate place to eat. And when we finally pulled up, I immediately had a great feeling about the place. It is a hole-in-the-wall with little in the way of signage and even less in the way of décor. The tables are worn and the clientele was almost entirely Malaysian. We ate lots of amazing grub, including popiah, roti with chicken curry sauce, tamu emas (blocks of golden tofu), and beef rendang. After returning home, I did some research and discovered that the restaurant has tons and tons of fans beyond the Yelp universe.
My conversion from skeptic to Yelp devotee is still cautious, but it marks a definite shift in my approach to the group evaluation function of social media. I've also been reading James Surowiecki's very convincing The Wisdom of Crowds and I am convinced that various of Surowiecki's points about the surprising accuracy of collective syntheses of information has had a hand in my evolution.
I won't stop hitting up my friends for tips or peruse the listings sections of magazines and blogs that I like, and I'm not ready to trust the crowds on every subject. (I'll forever be taking my own friends' evaluations of hotels and beach towns over those most popular on user-generated sites.) But I have complete faith that when dozens of random people rave about a restaurant in Elmhurst, they're most likely onto something.
*It was actually Richard who expressed things in these terms, but Matt has communicated this idea on several occasions recently.