Most of you are familiar with TripAdvisor; the travel directory which provides ratings for restaurants, accommodations and tourist attractions. For the past 5 years I thought that maybe I was missing something on my annual one-week vacations as I would research restaurants on TripAdvisor; venture to one of the top 5 ranked restaurants only to be disappointed about 50-60% of the time. I find that failure rate high and a waste of money as many of the top ranked restaurants fall into the $$$/$$$$ threshold. For a foodie, when you only have a week or two of vacation a bad meal can make it or break it. I figured my year in Europe would be the perfect opportunity to get down to the bottom of it.
First off, a couple things to understand about TripAdvisor:
- TripAdvisor will not disclose its full algorithm but it claims that quality, recency and quantity are the main factors that contribute to a rating.
- TripAdvisor operates in 39 different countries and under 22 different media brands which in total receive 260 million unique website visitors per month. Oh, and it’s owned by Expedia.
So basically, they run the show in terms of SEO (search engine optimization) for travel. The initial purpose of the site is, with good intent, a means of bringing consumers together on a platform to share a realistic perspective. However, it has evolved into a forum where anonymous diners angrily vent or elated diners rave; a place where reviewer’s who’s tastes I can’t trust (because I don’t know them) give their polar views, often times inarticulately and emotionally online. It’s also rumored that restaurant employees will sometimes give fake reviews in order to increase their ranking and decrease their competitor’s ranking.
I think my standards are reasonable considering that I’m from the Pacific Northwest where we are spoiled with fresh products and talented chefs. My main criteria when traveling (my scale is different at home) is that the ingredients need to be fresh and not canned or frozen on meals $20+ per person. I assume that venue cleanliness is a given. Then, service and dish innovation fall next; two factors on which I’m more lenient knowing they should correspond to price. The ambiance and decor are generally less important for me but if I’m near water I tend to seek out views.
In Brač Croatia we ended up in a restaurant called Palma for lunch. All expectations were checked at the door as there were early indicators that this wasn’t going to be a memorable meal. No problem…we just needed something to eat. In an attempt to play it safe, I asked the chef what he recommended from the list of 50 items. He revealed that there was no fresh fish and to not get the calamari because it is never fresh (keep in mind I’m on an island). He steered me to “the pasta and chicken”. The last time I ordered that combo was on an airplane but I thought “what the hell” might as well… My husband did the same. When the dishes arrived the slimy tagliatelle pasta was swimming in an unidentifiable orange sauce with unrecognizable chunks (presumably the chicken). I couldn’t place the foreign taste leaving me to conclude it came from a can. I’m dumbfounded on how they managed to ruin such a simple dish. The bill came $40 for the both of us. Out of curiosity I crosschecked TripAdvisor’s review and found that it’s rank #3 restaurant in town and had several rave reviews .
My point isn’t to simply bash TripAdvisor but to point out that user generated-content is a slippery slope when it comes to restaurant ratings. I would much rather follow the reviews of public figures like Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz and Anthony Bourdain who stand behind the brands/restaurants they endorse and whose opinions I trust. With as many knowledgeable chef figures and quality video and blog content available you’d think there would be a way to aggregate the data in one place and be able to easily search it.
In the mean time, here are some culinary resources on Croatia:
Culinary Croatia– Cooking classes, wine and olive grove tours
More culinary experiences with Adriatic Experience
Blog (in English) from a local Croatian with many restaurant reviews