Where Have You Gone, Mobil Travel Guide?
When I was a kid, I was in charge of helping figure out where we’d eat at on family road trips. I’d sit in the back seat of the station wagon with my beloved Mobil Travel Guide and pore over options.
We’re coming into Elmira? Looks like there’s a family restaurant with two stars and a check mark (good value!) that does its own baking and has a 75-item salad bar. Or here’s a sirloin house located in a stone replica of a 16th century castle with a view of the town. Usually we’d just stop at whatever diner or pancake house was right off the highway but I was endlessly entertained. I could spend hours trying to picture the cornucopia of a salad bar that stocked 75 separate items (like Jim Gaffigan, I never could have imagined chocolate pudding).
The entries for big cities like New York or Chicago were even more magical. These were the bastions of 4- and 5-star luxury palaces that I could scarcely comprehend, let alone hope to dine at. It was a world of French maitre-d’s, crystal chandeliers, fresh-cut flowers, tuxedoed waiters, roast duckling carved table-side and men drinking champagne from their companion’s slippers. It all sounded impossibly wonderful except for the drinking champagne from someone’s dirty shoe part.
Before you think this is all ancient history, recall that as recently as the 1990’s things weren’t all that different. (See my post The Halibut that Almost Broke Up My Marriage for what it was like in 1997 to try to find a restaurant in New York City.) Maybe the kid in the back seat had a Zagat or god help him a Fodor’s. Or maybe he was particularly industrious and managed to get his hands on a “best of” list from the local newspaper restaurant critic or Washingtonian equivalent. It was still a strikingly limited number of sources of information — almost all of which was mediated by acknowledged experts.
All of that changed with the internet.
The internet produced an explosion of information unmatched in human history. Foodies could check out menus, photos, blogs, local magazines and newspapers from anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. We could connect with foodies around town or across the globe. We could download apps that let us do nothing all day but think about and share food experiences with others. All from the comfort of our La-Z-Boys.
That kind of information can also be a powerful tool for navigating our everyday lives. Just last week, I was wandering around Wheaton looking for someplace to have lunch. I used to live in the area and have a bunch of favorites but wanted to try one of the new latin restaurants that have popped up. But which one? There were a lot of them and I only had about five minutes to decide. In the old days, I would’ve had to take potluck or peer through the windows of a couple places to see if they looked appealing. Instead, in about three minutes on the internet I found a homey Bolivian place called Kantutas and had a great cheap-eats lunch.
Carne Asada at Kantutas, 2462 Ennalls Ave, Wheaton MD ($14)
So to be clear: there are incredible benefits for food culture in today’s interconnected world and I don’t ever, ever, ever want to go back. But it’s not all upside. There are consequences that aren’t quite so positive that we need to acknowledge if we’re going to deal with them properly.
First, there’s the diminishing value of expertise.
The Mobil Travel Guide was so much more than a way to occupy myself during a long car ride. It represented my faith in a system, an established order that helped me make sense of the world. There were strict rules and enforceable expectations. I pictured a small officious man with a pencil mustache and three-piece suit making authoritative notations on his clipboard as he walked through a restaurant, the owner trailing in his wake, waiting breathlessly for the verdict. If the inspector determined that a restaurant was a three-star-excellent and not a four-star-worth-a-special-trip, that finding was definitive and unassailable. I trusted him. I trusted the oil company that hired him. I trusted the system.
Now we have Yelp and Instagram.
Yelp is about the opinions of regular people displacing professional reviewers. Anyone can go on Yelp and post a review that lives forever. No need to have eaten widely before weighing in. No need to visit a restaurant multiple times or deal with pesky editors checking your factual assertions. Your opinion is as “valid” anyone’s just because it’s yours. The internet now gives you a way to foist that opinion on the world.
That kind of internet populism has obvious parallels in the political sphere. So many of the gatekeepers of yesteryear have lost their moderating power. Party elders. Editorial boards. Political columnists. Evening news anchors. They’re now easily bypassed by everyone and their grandmother spouting off on Facebook or a President using Twitter to bring the crazy directly to the American people. A little expert filtering sounds pretty good right about now.
Worse, Yelp reviewers might not only be uninformed, they might have an agenda — i.e., be purveyors of “fake news.” Maybe the reviewer is the owner’s sister-in-law or a competitor down the street. Or maybe they’re the worst kind of person in the world, the kind who picks a fight with a restaurant and and then threatens a bad Yelp review if their demands aren’t met (usually comped food). Fake news is often hard to distinguish from the real thing and the nature of the internet protects anonymity.
If Yelp is internet 1.0 for foodies, Instagram is 2.0. It’s where the next generation of foodies lives.
Unlike Yelp, which retains the heavy written component of an old-style internet message board, Instagram is all about the pictures. It also skews young. It’s the #1 social media platform among teens and over half of Instagram’s 700 million worldwide users are between 18-29 years old.
Young people have turned Instagram into a food-porn/restaurant promotion delivery platform with amazing reach. A 19-year old named Justin Schuble from Potomac literally posts under the name “dcfoodporn” and has 170,000 followers (you can read an excellent Washingtonian profile of Schuble here). Other local food Instagrammers have similar mind-boggling numbers: DC Dining — 70,600 followers; DCEatss — 49,800 followers; Edible DC — 45,600 followers; dcfoodsters — 27,300 followers; DCFoodies — 24,300 followers. Local restaurants are invited to contact them directly for “partnership opportunities.”
That’s a ton of young people looking at food pics all day. What impact does it have?
FOMO, for one. Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is now part of the Oxford English Dictionary and refers to the feeling of “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere.” It’s one thing to read on Yelp that someone had a good meal six months ago at Le Diplomate, it’s another to see a picture on Instagram showing that someone right now is enjoying the best looking french-onion soup you’ve ever seen, a spoon stretching the burnished cheese a full six inches above the bowl. My soup never looks that good, you think to yourself as you wait for your Lean Cuisine to finish rotating in the microwave. No wonder study after study show a connection between the use of Instagram by young people and the negative consequences of FOMO including loneliness, negative self-image, feelings of personal inadequacy, inferiority and jealousy.
You might say that FOMO is not a new phenomenon and that I had a type of FOMO sitting in the back of that station wagon imagining the beautiful people eating out in NYC. If so, it was a pretty mild case. It lacked the immediacy and the visual punch of Instagram. It was in my mind, not in my face.
There’s another potential impact of Instagram that’s more speculative but could affect the dining experience in a more direct way — the impact of Instagram (and social media in general) on restaurant food itself. The coin of the realm in the world of Instagram is the number of “likes” a picture gets. That means photos have to trigger an immediate, visceral reaction in the .00001 seconds that young people take to decide whether to like a post or not. That, in turn, means foods with color (lots of sprinkled doughnuts and intricate sushi rolls), comforting familiarity (often involving stretchy cheese), and of course suggestive overtones (e.g., oozing egg yolks and dripping ice cream cones).
The shot itself is often first-person, with the name of the establishment in the background, like this shot I took on the 4th in Fredericksburg:
Unfortunately this wouldn’t be a great like-magnet. The cone should be drippier and have colored sprinkles, but who wants to actually eat a drippy cone and the place didn’t sell sprinkles (DC Food Porn would have brought his own).
I doubt there’s a conscious connection between the rise of Instagram and the sudden rage for adding soft-cooked eggs to everything in sight, but at the margins it couldn’t hurt. The appearance of food has always been important — you eat first with your eyes, the old saying goes — but the visual aspects of food never had the primacy it does now.
It may have contributed to the rise of desserts that look like barren moonscapes:
Or parties-on-a-plate like the bubble waffle at Tiger Fork:
The problem is that the most photogenic dishes are often not the most delicious. Ugly-but-delicious food like stews, curries and braises just don’t cut it on Instagram. Over time, those dishes will be at a disadvantage in securing restaurant shelf space.
I don’t have all the answers but here are a few tentative ones.
For Yelp, the best way to deal with the lack of expertise and fake news is to focus first on the pictures people post. Pictures don’t lie. The pictures will tell you more about the food than some random Yelper’s comments. You can see the care the restaurant takes in cooking and plating. You can see what kind of fries they serve. You can get a sense of portion sizes and whether it seems like a good value for the money. Once you’ve scanned the pictures, then you can go back and triangulate with the written reviews with a more skeptical eye.
As for Instagram, I know I just said pictures don’t lie but Instagram pictures do lie. It may look like someone’s living the life you should be living and eating better food, but it’s all a facade. That Instagrammer probably took dozens of pictures and played with different filters and lighting to create the fantasy you saw. It’s entirely possible they never even tasted the food because it was cold or melted before they were done shooting. So by all means admire the handiwork, but never suspend disbelief. Instead, recommit yourself to seeking out ugly-but-delicious food and supporting the restaurants that serve it.
In the end, thinking about whether all this new technology has made our lives better or worse will make your head hurt. The truth is no one knows. We’re like rats in a maze, part of a great and unprecedented experiment. We simply don’t know the impact on our individual brains or the broader society. And we’re still in the early stages — so early in fact that most of the population still has one foot firmly planted in the pre-internet world even as the new world is unfolding.
We’re the control group for the ever-increasing number of young people who’ll never know anything else. Like the pleasure of thumbing through a Mobil Travel Guide heading down I-94 in the back of a ’74 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser blissfully unaware how big and uncertain the world really is.