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April 23, 2010

The Best

I'm simply going to double-post something here that I just posted on a Chowhound thread. This is something that's been sticking in my craw for a long time now, so I figured I'd better get it out here as well.

At the risk of prompt moderation, can I take this thread on a small tangent?

How the heck does one name a "best" restaurant? How does one ascribe relative value to places with wildly different styles? I mean, it's one thing to say that this Sonoran hot dog is the best, or this steak frites is the best... though even that can get dicey when people stray from the strictest traditional preparations... but how can you possibly take fine dining, casual dining, Mom 'n Pop ethnic joints and greasy spoons and place them all on the same continuum?

This is like saying the Beatles were better than Mozart, or vice versa. Can't they just both be incredibly wonderful and influential musical artists in their own unique ways? Why does a discussion like this need to be a winner-take-all king of the hill match to see who can be named The Greatest Restaurant Of All Time?

I'm not saying the word "best" is one that should be banished from a food nerd's vocabulary, but it's grossly overused, and when you're trying to apply it to an entire metropolitan area with a population of 4.2 million, it's absurd. It's a diverse and wonderful world of food out there, and I don't understand the need to stratify it and declare a winner. Except when comparing things in the most narrow manner possible, I say leave the "best" restaurant discussions and the top ten lists for those who view dining as a matter of status. We should know better.

</rant>

UPDATE : Unsurprisingly, the post has already been banished to Site Chat, where conversations go to die. *sigh* I miss LTH.

Comments

We just had a restaurant guide published in san francisco by Tablehopper, who has written a longstanding restaurant newsletter.

http://www.tablehopper.com/book/

It's divided up into best restaurant by use & need - such as "Best First Date", "Best Special Occasion" and hoping under these circumstances "Best Place to take out of town foodies who want to be impressed."

It's all contextual.

Right, that seems to be a favorite approach of alternative papers, as well, and it's a good one. Then you're comparing apples and apples... or at least you're comparing different places' utility for a specific purpose. It's especially good, I think, when the categories become ridiculous. Then it's just an excuse to mention the places you want to mention, which is how it should be.

Though I've couched it as a matter of semantics, I think it's really more a matter of mindset. Of course comparisons are inevitable, especially among similar restaurants, but when I eat someplace I don't want to be thinking about whether it's better than X and not as good as Y, and by how much, and where I'd rank it. I want to be thinking about what makes it unique and interesting and delicious in its own way. That doesn't mean that every restaurant is a beautiful flower and none are better than any other. Some restaurant suck. But it's allowing for places to develop their own style, rather than trying to shoehorn them into some Unified Theory of Great Restaurants that attempts to compile all of the variables into a singular number with which it can be judged against others.

This notion that there's a "single best" of just about anything is incredibly detrimental to good eating, and it's frustrating.

I know the frustration of which you speak. There are so many ways to define "best," plus, a city like Phoenix is so big that location is almost more important than what type of restaurant.

However, I recently started traveling more as part of a new job. One of the biggest issues I face is finding a good restaurant. There are so many to choose from any more.

So I do understand his questions.

This is the best food blog on the internet.

Your post makes sense to me. It reminds me of the way I rolled my eyes when two fellow movie nerd friends of mine argued about which was the "best" film of the year, Tom Ford's "a Single Man" or James Cameron's "Avatar." in my opinion they both provided enjoyable experiences but in totally different ways. That said, the original Chow Hound query does not seem unreasonable. The headline asks "what is the best restaurant in Phoenix?" but the post says "I have one night in an unfamiliar city and I want to know where to eat." that is not an unreasonable topic for a blog query IMO, but it shouldn't have been matched with that headline.

Dom,

While I agree with your rant completely,* I think you're a little harsh as using the orignal post as a launching point. A person is coming to your city for "one night only" and wants a restaurant recommendation. S/he provides no explanation as to why they are coming, where they are staying, food preferences, etc. They are from NYC, so I assume they would be looking for something different and probably higher end. Assume they are near the airport or downtown. Pick something, anything. Make assumptions about the person; send them to whatever the "hottest" place is, or whatever. Hell, send them to the most expensive place in town, just for giggles.

You don't have to share the opinion of "best", or even have one. (For instance, I'm a native San Diegan living out East. When I go home, the first place I stop is my favorite hole-in-wall Mexican place. Is it the "best" place in San Diego? No. But, I think it is among the finest Mexican street food places in the city. I neither expect, nor care if someone else shares my opinion. If you ask me where to eat, I might tell you that place.)

Further, by posting to Chowhound, I'm assuming the person wanted a quick list of possibilities, and then do their own research. I don't think you needed to go off on them.

*In particular, as a music lover who has season tickets to the opera and sees nothing wrong with listening to Ministry or Black Sabbath or Dead Kennedys while driving home from said opera, I get the point that different things that constitute "food" or "music" have different purposes and places and both can be the "Best".

Timothy and Anon Man...

My objection to the OP was simply one of semantics. My initial response was to turn it around, by asking something along the lines of "Maybe we can help you better if you tell us what you think is the single best restaurant in New York." Unsurprisingly, no reply, probably because the question is no less absurd.

I was more disappointed that it turned into an actual discussion of what "the best" restaurant in Phoenix might be. A list of great places for one night? Sure. Someplace unique to the city? Absolutely. But a genuine discussion followed where there was a lot of "X is better than Y." The talk wasn't about which places were unique or interesting or special to Phoenix, but playing right into the question... head-to-head comparisons of which restaurant was better than which, no matter how different they may be.

Dom,

Put that way, I could see your frustration, especially on a BB of foodies, who should really know better.

For what its worth, I'm heading out to PHX in the fall on a business trip. Time permitting, I'm hoping to eat at NOCA, based solely on your review and that its just a few miles from where we are staying.

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