Monday, March 18, 2013

"Cursed with a plague"

At the risk of revealing that in the year 2013, I have finally discovered the internet, this will be a post about Yelp. 

Yelp reviews as a genre have a lot to admire, but my favorite have to be the ones where someone wanted something very specific, and headed straight for an establishment that plainly does not have the thing in question. The best example of this phenomenon, alas from life, not Yelp, might be when, at a thoroughly decorated Thai restaurant in Heidelberg, Germany, some people came in asking if the place sold schnitzel. Confusing it, seemingly, with a nearby beer-centric restaurant.

Not all cluelessness counts. It needs to be a case where it's obvious a place is/has one thing, and yet the customer demand should somehow trump all, to the point of actually transforming an establishment. And ideally the mistaken individual(s) will be locals - it needs to be entitlement at best, obliviousness at worst, and not culture shock. (It's not hilarious if someone just in from a country that doesn't have the chain - if such places still exist - assumes Starbucks serves hamburgers, or, along the same lines, if someone from a place where the only coffee bars are Starbucks orders a "grande" at a different one while on vacation.) Nor can it be culture clash (class-inflected) within a community - someone used to fast food expecting fries at an upscale restaurant whose emphasis is foams. It needs to be abundantly clear that the mistake was the customer's, and that the customer does not see this.

My all-time favorite on Yelp comes a filtered (which is often key) one-star review of Masa, one of those restaurants in Midtown-broadly-speaking that notoriously cost some freakish amount, but even if you hadn't known this, even if Masa is one of those thousand-dollar meals served in a shabby setting (never been, but I kind of doubt it), menus tend to be helpful in that regard: "My girlfriend was starving and we saw it was a sushi place but didn't look at the prices before we were seated." As someone who has, on occasion, and only in the presence of loved ones, gotten cranky when hungry, I can't even begin to imagine. What completes the story is that the couple then go on to eat dinner at Masa, evidently the most expensive restaurant in all of New York City. As much as it's never advisable, from a Cheapness Studies sense, to go for any sushi when "starving," this individuals somehow set out for a couple of California rolls and ended up, what, a thousand dollars lighter?

Another, not filtered, of a Williamsburg coffee shop I've peeked into and am now desperate to actually try:
I didn't think it was possible to find a more pretentious, smugly elitist coffee shop than Blue Bottle, which is 3 blocks away. Yet somehow in Williamsburg we are cursed with a plague of affectation, and it descends upon Toby's Estate with vengeance equal to that with which it claimed its brother on Wythe. 
First off, I like the idea that one is "cursed with a plague," and that plague is independent coffee shops. Let it be known that I would welcome such a plague. Note the "we" - this is someone who lives in Williamsburg. It continues:
I came here for a quick cup of coffee after missing the ferry, hoping for a quick pick-me-up before waking back to the pier. I disclosed my desire for speed to the lady at the counter and she assured me they could deliver.
It can't just be that I worked in a coffee shop that I find the idea of someone asking a counterperson at a coffee shop to make their drink quickly some mix of rude and hilarious. There were X people ahead of you in line, and their drinks need to be made first. What makes your time more valuable than theirs? (Where's the Bitter Barista when you need him?) 

Lo and behold, the hip coffee shop in Williamsburg proved not to be a coffee cart, a Dunkin Donuts, or a vending machine:
Five minutes later I was still waiting at the counter while a bearded betattooed hipster traded stories absentmindedly with another hipster about (I kid you not) their most sublime "coffee experiences." Telling this man, who clearly possessed no concept of time, that I was in a hurry was like talking to Mr. Bean in "Love Actually." I pleaded with him that I would take whatever had dropped through my miserable individual filter [...]
Ah! The pour-over method. Always a good thing to check for if you're expecting a quick cup of regular coffee. Pour-over, for the uninitiated, means it would be quicker and cheaper to get an espresso, maybe even an espresso-and-foam concoction. But this individual, who a) lives in Williamsburg, and b) has done so long enough to have encountered Blue Bottle is initiated. This is the very definition of what not to order if you're in a hurry.

And it goes on - dude (or dudette - although various clues suggest this individual is male) misses his second consecutive ferry. But the coffee itself was not bad after all.


caryatis said...

My favorite example is the man who went to a pretentious wine/microbrew bar and complained he hadn’t heard of any of the beers. “Why can’t I just get a friggin Corona?” This place is called La Cave du Vin, by the way. It is not where you go to indulge your working-class side.

Or the man who complained that his waitress at a steakhouse had a “five-inch” skirt on. “Some members of the party were offended.” I’ve also read complaints about the facial expression or tone of voice of a server.

I sort of sympathize with the Masa couple. I have walked out of restaurants upon seeing their prices, but it takes a certain commitment to your cheapness.

I also like the reviews which tell you about the decor, the service, the wait time, the prices, even the bathrooms, and never mention the food. Or the people who get frustrated and leave without ever eating, and then write a review! Inevitably these are also the people who show up with a large party on a Saturday night.

Here is my advice on Yelp:

Phoebe said...

Yes re: negative reviews on Yelp being about things unrelated to the food. My guess is, this is more true where I live now in NJ than in the city. There is a restaurant experience many seem to expect, and anything cramped, anywhere without a cheery server who introduces himself by name, is a lost cause for many.

Not sure re: Masa. I could understand doing something like what the Masa couple did if the place were a bit more expensive than expected. Prices online are often off, regardless, and if you're just wandering into a place, you do risk being surprised. Maybe you were expecting $12 pasta but now must brace yourself for $16 if you don't want to make a fuss. But this is a month's rent going to dinner, utterly unplanned. It doesn't look cheap to walk out when the meal will be over a thousand dollars.

And in the middle of Manhattan of all places, there's no possibility that one is hungry and thus must eat in a restaurant - there's always going to be a convenience store or even supermarket that's open. This particular couple (and I think the review even mentions it?) might have considered the Whole Foods in the very same shopping center. Instead, they took "whole paycheck" more literally.

Britta said...

My favorite are the 1 star reviews on amazon which go something like: THIS PRODUCT DID NOT ARRIVE IN TIME FOR MY DAUGHTER'S BIRTHDAY AND THE BOX WAS DENTED!!!!!

Uh, thanks. Next time I need a gift before your daughter's birthday, I'll take your review into consideration.

Anyways, I was just thinking about writing a travel guide for the frugal/anyone, though now I realize this is true regardless of where you are, but never partake of a service before knowing the price, or at least general ballpark price of the service. This is especially true in countries where prices aren't fixed and have to be bargained for, but I think it's also true elsewhere. Also, for restaurants in the US, I've found that places which don't post prices (and aren't dive bars) are generally they're along the lines of "If you have to ask you can't afford it"

Britta said...

Oh, there was also a one star review of Masa saying "This is not AUTHENTIC Japanese food."

Phoebe said...


I don't remember how I ever thought to look up Masa on Yelp (it definitely had nothing to do with considering eating there, and was likely done from a couch in NJ), but I remember those as being some of the most amazing reviews all around.

"never partake of a service before knowing the price"

This is so central to the Cheapness Studies philosophy, at least as I see it. It bothers me in principle even if the items in question are unlikely to be expensive, indeed even if (as at one coffee shop near NYU) I know the items (croissants, to be specific) are reasonably priced. Why can't the price be marked? And, as much as I like ordering whole fish in restaurants, I rarely do so because of the "market price" phenomenon. Does the market change so frequently? Can't there be a set price for a given day (per pound, at least) so there might be an estimate?

But you're right that this is all the more key when traveling. The closest I've ever come to the Masa faux pas was arriving in Italy late at night, not having any idea where near the hostel there was food, and, after extensive wandering, ending up with a whopping coperto (or tourist tax?) and some minute appetizer, because the main courses would have cost too much. The price of even this was high enough - if not nearly Masa-level - that I remember becoming very acquainted with Italian supermarkets thereafter.

Moebius Stripper said...

On the same theme is Would Not Make Again, a compilation of recipe reviews that can all be summarized as "I substituted half of the ingredients in this recipe and took liberties with the cooking time/method, and I am really disappointed with the way this dish turned out."