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Yelp and the City: The Quintessential Search for Lunch in the Modern Age

Opinion | October 21, 2013

The author Douglas Adams once jokingly broke down the development of civilization into three distinct phases: Survival, Inquiry, and Sophistication, or the How, Why, and Where phases. Each phase could be summed up in the form of a question. In his words, “the first phase is characterized by the question, ‘How can we eat?’ The second by the question, ‘Why do we eat?’ And the third by the question, ‘Where shall we do lunch?'”

Luckily, we live in a civilization advanced enough that when we ask that crucial third question, the answer can be found in our pockets. Mobile applications like Yelp, Urban Spoon, and TripAdvisor can tell us which restaurants or attractions are nearby, give a star rating based on other users’ feedback, and then direct us via GPS to whichever ones we choose. That social aspect to Yelp and Yelp-alikes is part of their key appeal: the entire process of restaurant reviewing is democratized. With apologies to Douglas Adams, these applications may usher in a fourth age, characterized by the question, “Where is everyone else doing lunch?”

That fundamental issue of food and where to get it has always been central to city life. The very first cities were founded when agriculture advanced to the point at which surpluses were regularly available. This meant that a population could reliably produce more food than rural citizens needed to survive, and that extra food could be brought into cities in exchange for trade goods produced by the city-dwellers. The city grows large and powerful, the artists and traders flourish, and, if all goes as planned, the city becomes one that every middle-schooler now learns about in history class.

Unlike in Babylonia, today’s questions surrounding food aren’t so much about eating or not eating. The modern city-dweller is more concerned with what type of food they will be eating, how good it is, and the environment in which it’s consumed—the “where shall we do lunch”-type questions. Do you want Mexican food? Well then, do you want a burrito, served hot through the window of a food truck, a veritable food baby, delicious in that particular way of all street food? If food on a plate is more your speed, how about the casual Mexican place down the street, or perhaps even the high-end establishment a few blocks over?

This process is, of course, repeatable for any style of cuisine you could possible desire, and, in a large city, the array of options grows truly staggering. This is where the apps come in. Because I use Yelp most often, that’s what I’ll refer to, but the differences between Yelp and Yelp-alikes are negligible enough to make most of what I’m saying translatable to other similar apps.

Yelp is designed to sort out the problem of the availability of eating options getting in the way of actually eating. This is related to “choice paralysis,” a phenomenon that may affect your life, for example, when an everyday grocery trip is interrupted by a decision between fifteen available varieties of milk. Choice paralysis refers to how the taxing effect of your over-analysis in what you expect to be a simple choice can lead to you make an irrational decision—say, choosing 2% with extra calcium before realizing, as you leave the store, that non-fat really would have been the better choice. Swap the grocery store for the city, the 2% for disappointing pizza, the forsaken non-fat for tantalizing Indian food, and you can see how choice paralysis comes into play when deciding on lunch.

Yelp sidesteps this experience in two ways: first, it only displays restaurants near you or within a pre-determined search area on a map, with star ratings based on the impressions of other Yelp users. Second, you can set specific search criteria: searching “Mexican” will bring up every establishment in the search area that serves Mexican food or some variation thereof. This initial map screen allows you to quickly rule out options based on distance and the all-important star rating. Yelp even has a color-coding system, with higher-rated restaurants displaying fiery red stars, and disappointing eateries displaying pale, tepid yellow stars. Prominent critics or official dining guides do not assign these star ratings—the rating you see on the map is the average of user reviews for the restaurant. Clicking on a potential restaurant takes you to more detailed information: price range, opening hours, other miscellaneous data, and, below that, the individual reviews. Even these little islands of individuality are summed up in a nice bar graph, rendering the results more quantitative.

That’s the hitch, though, at least for me: that idea that Yelp makes the urban experience more quantitative. Going out to lunch doesn’t necessarily have to be some great adventure, and in fact, I’d prefer lunch not to be, most of the time. However, having statistics attached to my eating experience doesn’t quite mesh with the weird and wonderful hunter-gatherer notion of going out into the city and tracking down the ideal meal. There is something romantic about the idea of that meal being out there somewhere, waiting for me to find it. With the perfect combination of luck and tenacity, I can sniff it out— perhaps literally—and achieve that perfect metropolitan food experience. Getting lunch probably won’t be an adventure. But as much as the city is about food and where to get it, it’s also about the unexpected possibilities we encounter on the way to food.

Of course, I have to reconcile this resistance with the fact that Yelp can be amazingly helpful. Quantification of the urban experience isn’t pleasant for me, but being able to find what I want is. Most importantly, there’s a promise with Yelp that one day, a restaurant will make me mad enough to want to write a scathing review, and I will be able to show that review to the world.

As more people start writing Yelp reviews, the amazing potential of the site will be realized. Now that every diner has the capacity to be an incognito reviewer, the sitcom cliché of the food critic visiting a restaurant in disguise while the hapless owner struts and frets may take on a ring of truth. This renders restaurants fully accountable at all times for the dining experience they provide for their customers. Of course, there are issues with this kind of anonymity: in September, CNN Money reported that many Yelp reviews masquerading as honest opinions have later turned out to be fabricated by writers for pay. Despite the obstacle of false reviews, the fact remains that the fate of many restaurants can rest in the hands of the ordinary customer. Every slow kitchen, rude manager, or dirty plate can and will be forced to undergo public scrutiny. Or, at least, the scrutiny of Yelp users.

I happily admit that I’m one of those Yelpers. And I’m not going to pretend I’ve struck a perfect balance of Yelp-like technology and trusting my own luck to find quality food in big cities. There have been times when I’ve just wandered until my lunch dilemma was solved without a need to consult my phone, and at other times, Yelp is my crutch.

Yelp has proven most valuable when it categorizes my dining options based on price, or the availability of table service, or even other users’ feedback. Yelp keeps reeling me back in because of the way it simplifies the chaos of the city just enough for me to step in and make my own choices. It averts choice paralysis without averting choice itself. It resolves an unappetizing mess into an inviting mystery.

Yelp is useful in its empowerment of me and of other diners, demanding greater accountability on the part of eateries. Yelp is worthwhile when it allows me to see the unseen, by telling me: “Hey, there’s another pretty good place around the corner.” Yelp is essential when it gives me information that is vague enough to be full of promise, but specific enough to get me back out into the city, back into that hunter-gatherer mindset, back out answering that final, critical essential question of where exactly we shall do lunch.