Food, travel and the enablers of mediocrity

We’re watching a cheesy Netflix series called Instant Hotel in which Australian couples who rent out their homes compete for the title of being owner of the best ‘instant hotel’. I’m a great believer in equilibrium in many aspects of life, so to counter anything thought-provoking I like to end the night with a dollop of something mindless to wind the brain down. That’s my excuse for watching Instant Hotel and I’m sticking to it.

One particularly obnoxious contestant explained she was the most qualified as a judge of accommodation because she was a top Tripadvisor reviewer. The others seemed to accept this as a legitimate qualification, whereas I was spluttering “you’ve got to be chuffing joking”, or words to that effect.

It was satisfying, if predictable, when the self-appointed expert couldn’t understand when her house, in a magnolia Melbourne housing development, was slated for being in a soulless location. She had no idea what others meant by ‘soulless’. She might have penned countless reviews on the travel advisory site, but how trustworthy were her opinions?

Food from a hotel buffet, Tenerife
I have absolutely no idea what this was from a Tenerife hotel buffet.

This is a huge problem I have with Tripadvisor reviews. How do I know whether a reviewer’s likes and dislikes are in line with my own or not? I don’t know their background, their experiences, their personal tastes. All of these are important. I can make a judgement based on how they write a review, but more often than not reviews are too vague… or too anally retentive.

Personal experience counts for a lot. In a heated discussion on a Tripadvisor forum about a restaurant on Tenerife, some noses were put out of joint when one poster commented that people who thought a particular restaurant was one of the best on Tenerife must have had a limited experience of eating to come to that conclusion. It’s a view which has validity. If someone only dines out when on holiday in the same destination year after year, their culinary experiences are severely limited. Before we got wise to the perils of trusting TA reviews we were disappointed more times than I can count by uninspiring offerings in restaurants and hotels which had been raved about by TA reviewers.

Cantinha Ze Avillez, Lisbon
Acceptable in an average traditional restaurant, but is this what you expect from the kitchen of one of Lisbon’s top chefs?

“There was a wide range of food, definitely the most I’ve ever seen at a hotel before…” – Tenerife
The choice was so poor I struggled to actually find anything which looked appetising.

“The food is best described as gastronomic…” – Scotland.
The food was best described as being stuck in the 1980s.

“A truly fabulous find. A celebrity chef owns and runs the establishment and the food is really something.” – Lisbon.
The food was really something, it was run of the mill. I suspect the reviewer was a faux food snob dazzled by the celebrity status of the chef.

Prawn cocktail, Scotland
Back to the 80s, prawn cocktail.

The worst example was related to the Parador on La Gomera where I had a shocker of a meal, which I complained about at the time and later in writing (no response). A few days after our stay I read a review by an American guest who described my dinner experience exactly, and then gave the place a 5 star review.

Those establishments are never going to improve as long as the masses leave undeserved rave reviews. Reviewers of the ilk used in the examples are enablers of culinary mediocrity.

This issue I have with people who review restaurants doesn’t just apply to Tripadvisor, I’m as cautious about who to trust in the travel writing/blogging business as well. There are plenty out there who write about food and travel yet who are in reality fussy eaters. Some write about, and recommend, food they’d refuse to pop in their own mouths.

Tough meat, Parador, La Gomera
There’s a teeth-testing piece of meat under that sauce in La Gomera’s Parador.

In the case of travel writing there’s a portfolio of work I can refer to which quickly alerts me to how much of a foodie someone really is – by preferences, experiences and whether they regularly visit restaurants under their own steam rather than having them chosen by tourist boards/PR firms. I also tend to veer toward trusting folk who enjoy attempting to create, recreate in their own kitchens. It’s something we do, and I can’t imagine how anyone who likes writing about food wouldn’t enjoy cooking.

Cooking at home, Tenerife
We love eating out, we love cooking at home.

For that, and other reasons, I love interviewing chefs. Not only do we pick up cooking tips, we learn where they like to eat when they escape their own kitchens. I like to consider advice from experts in any given field. I know, given current societal trends, that’s something which might be an outdated approach.

Some of the people whose opinions I trust most are friends who share a love of food; people who have travelled extensively, are adventurous diners, and have experienced a wide range of culinary offerings in simple joints as well as Michelin star, or equivalent, restaurants. Some write, some don’t.

Good food, Venice, Italy
When someone we trust recommends a restaurant…

Ultimately culinary preferences are a personal thing. But when it comes to being influenced by restaurant reviews and recommendations, I’m always going to pay more heed to those from people who can compare and contrast from a deep pool of experiences covering a diverse range of locations.

About Jack 799 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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