19 August 2009

Locals Don't Always Know Best

"Best" is one of those loaded words. It gets thrown around by most in advertising and the media as if it has a tangible and measurable value. The truth is that "best" is nothing more than a word used to define an individual's preference.

Somehow, I recently started to receive newsletters from a "local" publication. In one of these newsletters, the publisher detailed an encounter he and his wife had with some tourists. As they sat eating outside a recently opened sushi joint, some tourists walked by and stopped to ask if the food was any good. The publisher's wife gave them a "meh" response.

The publisher was surprised that his wife would give them this response. She, rightfully, felt no shame over the response. It was, after all, her opinion (even though she said, "What? I wouldn't want to lie to them). Yet, somehow from his wife's response, he made an incredulous leap in logic: The scenario proved that locals know best.

Do Locals Know Best?
When it comes to little known gems of entertainment, recreation and even dining, yes!

In fact, some locals know better than others. Even locals could learn more by talking with their neighbors. You never know what jewel you have yet to discover right in your backyard.

When it comes to dining, however, locals most definitely do not know best. They only know what they like. Take the publisher's wife. I got to know her well enough at one time to know she would never presume to know "best," just what she personally considers best.

Having been raised in the Bay Area, she was privy to a whole bevy of authentic ethnic cuisine. For her, the bar was set higher than most locals around here. I remember her consistently saying that the Rogue Valley doesn't really have many good restaurants at all, and when it comes to any type of Pan-Asian fare, there's nothing worth shouting about.

In essence, no restaurant in town would get much more than an okay rating from her. So, as those tourists walked on to find a different and better restaurant, they did so based on one woman's opinion, not on a local's opinion. After all, her rating of the restaurant was based on her experience of restaurants that are hundreds of miles away.

Sometimes the Locals' Best Are Traditions
While on vacation and seeing family in Alaska a couple summers ago, we had a final breakfast out at a place in Eagle River. I believe it was called "The North Slope." This restaurant had a cool feel to it, especially the fun gold-rush facades they put up on the outside of the building.

My family members were a bit hesitant to go to the restaurant, but decided that we should have the experience at least. It was, after all, the local's favorite.

While waiting for our food, my family members explained how they used to have breakfast there almost every Sunday. Then ownership switched hands and things started to go down hill. In fact, they hadn't eaten there in almost a year. But, the restaurant was viewed as a must-eat for tradition sake.

After receiving our bountiful meals, I could see why they stopped eating there. The gravy was tasteless and had the consistency of paste. The pancakes weren't cooked all the way through. The toast was hard as a rock, and the eggs were slimy, like something found in a Vegas breakfast that goes for 99 cents.

So in the case of The North Slope restaurant, locals certainly didn't know best. They just treated it as best because it was traditional to go to that particular restaurant.

When It Comes to Locals, Ask the Right Questions
Just because someone is local, it doesn't mean they know your tastes. Asking a local if a restaurant is any good only opens the door for the local's opinion. Instead of "is the food any good here," ask these questions:
  • Is the food prepared to order, or do they pre-make most of their dishes?
  • How's the value?
  • What's the quality of the food? Is it traditional or mainstream?
  • How long did you have to wait for your food?
  • What's your favorite dish here?
  • What would you recommend?
  • How attentive/friendly are the servers?
And if you receive a negative review from the local, ask them why they're eating there. This may require talking to the local a little more and teasing out their tastes.

If the local explains that they don't like, for example, that the sushi is made with white rice and they prefer it with brown rice when you prefer your sushi with white, then you know that the local's opinion doesn't match your own.

You could also ask the local if they can recommend a better place to eat.

If the local starts telling you how much they like such and such restaurant because of the cous-cous and arugula salad they serve and you detest that type of food, then you know that that local's advice can be ignored.

After all, your idea of best may be on the complete opposite end of the quality spectrum than the local your asking.

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