Tweets, Shoots and Leaves

With gushing, exuberant, indefatigably upbeat charm, the foodie hype machine is destroying the soul of dining out.

food hype destroys dining out experiencesPhoto by Lucas Zarebinski

The first time I ate at West Bridge, in buzzing Kendall Square, I ordered the Egg in a Jar. Billed on the menu as “small,” it arrived at the table in a glass vessel that, true to form, was no bigger than my fist. But frankly, I was caught off-guard: In its mythology, it had been rendered enormous. Helen of Troy’s mug may have launched a thousand ships, but this diminutive shot glass of comestibles—buttery potato purée, crispy duck skin, roasted maitake mushrooms, soft-poached egg—had prompted at least as many silver-tongued scribes to plump on its $12 behalf.

Local gastronauts, in fact, have been obsessed with the Egg in a Jar since before West Bridge opened. On May 7, 2012, eight days prior, Grub Street posted a blow-by-blow of the egg’s preparation. On the day of the opening, Thrillist christened it the restaurant’s “signature” dish. By the time chef Matthew Gaudet and co-owner Alexis Gelburd-Kimler unlocked the doors for their first dinner service, the egg was already a certified sensation.

After that, the lovefest turned crazy. Excitable Yelpers led the charge, heralding the Egg in a Jar as “totally unique and delicious,” “pretty rad,” and “the highlight of the meal.” Chowhound wasn’t far behind: “For god’s sake, go to the bar immediately and order yourself one of these,” urged a typical post. The critics fell, too, deeming the egg “satisfaction through synthesis” (the Globe), “indisputably delicious” (the Improper Bostonian), and an “insta-classic” (our own Corby Kummer). Stuff devoted much of its Food Coma column to the egg, noting that it was good enough to “make you coo like a contented newborn.” First prize, however, goes to Eater Boston, which included the egg on a list of “Boston’s 20 Most Iconic Dishes,” where it rubbed shoulders with classics like the Hamersley’s roast chicken and No. 9 Park’s prune-stuffed gnocchi. That was July, when West Bridge was all of two months old. Talk about a contented newborn.

So by the time I waltzed into West Bridge in September, I’d consumed a heaping portion of buzz about the mythical Egg in a Jar. And now, finally, there it sat, looking every bit as fetching as it did in all of the pictures I’d seen on Instagram, the social-media photo-sharing service that seems to exist just for food porn. No, scratch that: It looked even better.

Just before digging in, I glanced over at the starter in front of my spouse, who’d ordered some random carrot dish I hadn’t even noticed on the menu. A genuine lover of dining who doesn’t read food blogs and couldn’t tell you with any certainty whether he possesses a Twitter account, he also makes a point to ignore—defiantly and to the letter—any ordering suggestion I deign to utter in his presence. Rolling my eyes, I silently wished him and his plate of carrots an unforgettable meal.

 

I should have known better. Even before sitting down at West Bridge, I had begun to worry whether we, as food lovers, have lost sight of the big picture. In our shift from enthusiastic connoisseurs to gluttonous consumers (and beleaguered producers) of food-related “content,” I fear we’ve forgotten how to enjoy the very activity that turned us into gastro-evangelists in the first place. Foodie hype-mongering is changing dining out, and not for the better.

Back in olden times, when professional critics did most of the reviewing, it was customary to wait two or three months before pouncing on a new eatery, to give the staff a chance to find its feet. That kind of restraint is but a faded memory, replaced by the feverish sprint to author the first Yelp blurb, or to live-tweet pictures of the opening menu. (The press—this magazine included—is complicit, fast-tracking cheery “previews” and “first looks” in advance of dispatching the critic.) These premature raves do damage in the long run, beckoning customers who might otherwise have waited for a visit. That race “doesn’t allow for a more-developed understanding of the experience,” says Tiffani Faison, chef-owner of Sweet Cheeks, “and almost never allows more than one visit.” Joe Cassinelli, owner of Posto and the Painted Burro, echoes that sentiment. “When writers come in too early, they’re seeing the place in its very infancy—it’s almost like reviewing a book based on the prologue.”

  • http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/ MC Slim JB

    A very thought-provoking piece. While I’m guilty of contributing to the hype cycle here (my Stuff Magazine review of West Bridge with a highlight on the egg dish was the earliest of the pro reviews on the place), I think in general that overconsumption of reviews of any aesthetic experience is a mistake.

    Read enough to convince yourself you want to go (try the restaurant, see the movie, watch the band live, etc.), then stop reading reviews. The issue now, as the author points out, is that there are now thousands of potential reviews to read — most of them by amateurs whose tastes you know nothing about, and thus shouldn’t be considering their advice seriously to begin with — so it’s easy to build unreasonable expectations before you ever set foot in a place. Pick trusted critics, pro or amateur, as they can help you identify places you’re likely to enjoy, but don’t spoil the experience before you go with overpreparation.

  • http://40-somethinglife.blogspot.com Tracey

    What an absolutely fascinating take on the Foodie. Being a foodie myself, I do and dont disagree with you. I remember hype over a duck dish at Blue Inc. that I wanted to be blown away by like you, but I thought it was just good. Or maybe it was better than good but the hype was too big for the dish. Almost like being disappointed in a movie everyone raves about.

    I still like to read reviews whether a yelper, blogger or mainstream critic and know what would be good to try at a restaurant but I also try to go for something different like the carrot dish.

    The sad part comes when a dish has been slammed as equally as one that has been raved about and you could miss out on trying something extraordinary.

    I am still not sure where I stand but thank you for writing something for myself as a blogger to think about.