'Best-of' dining lists should come with a proverbial shaker of salt

Annual awards and other ratings produce some funky, and questionable, results.

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Is this the best restaurant in Seattle? Citysearch voters said so.

Annual awards and other ratings produce some funky, and questionable, results.

"Best" is one of the most suspect terms in the English language. Does the Oscar really go to the "best" movie of the year? Whereas our political elections are open to universal suffrage and subjected to minute scrutiny by the media, Oscar voting is limited to the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose ballots are counted in secret by an accounting firm. 

It's a good thing the public trusts the Academy's decisions and the process; billions of dollars in ticket sales worldwide are at stake. But what of all the other "best" lists we see around us? Best pizza, best happy hour? How does Seattle Magazine come up with a cover story headlined "48 best sandwiches"? Why not 49? Why not 20?

I take no pleasure in writing this, but written it must be. These "Best Of" stickers you see around town, so proudly displayed on the doors of restaurants run by hardworking families or operated by soulless corporations, are meaningless crap. Whether they bear the logos of Citysearch, King5, UrbanSpoon, or Yelp, they are, for all intents and purposes, useless.

They're not actual scams, in that no one is swindled (except, perhaps, consumers who think they're "voting"), but they're bogus nonetheless. Not rigged, exactly, in that the sponsors do not know in advance who is going to "win," but riggable if you've got the wherewithall to marshall an army of fans. 

Let's take the most recent example, Citysearch's recently announced "Best of Seattle" winners. Two dozen restaurant categories, from "American" to "Wine List." And what do you know? Two restaurants dominated virtually every category: the family-run Kasbah and the corporate steakhouse Sullivan's. Sullivan's came in second in four categories (wine, fine, business lunch and late). Strange, right? 

This might be an understandable concentration of favorites if, say, this were a single-stable, single-stall, single-horse town. But this ain't no one-stoplight crossroad; it's a city with a dozen neighborhoods, hundreds of restaurants, tens of thousands of regular diners. 

Belltown's The Local Vine was closed between July and its Sept. 20 move to Capitol Hill. So how could it show up twice on the Citysearch list, as "best wine list" and "best open late"? (Let's make it clear: Seattle's best, most extensive wine list is at Canlis, which did win for "Fine Dining.")

Best restaurant in Seattle? Well, let me tell you: Best romantic, most family-friendly and "best for groups" were all honors snagged by Kasbah, a belly-dancing Moroccan spot in Ballard with a festive, five-course $29.95 menu. And with all those sub-category wins, what do you know? It was also named Seattle's "Best Restaurant."

Let's leave aside for a moment Kasbah's so-so 78 percent approval rating on UrbanSpoon (owned, as it happens, by the same parent company as Citysearch, IAC Interative). Let us ponder instead the remarkable finish of the second-best restaurant in Seattle. No, it's not Sullivan's; that came in third. Rather, it is the Greenwood franchise of the three-state Romio's Pizza chain. Voted second-most romantic and second-best pizza, it also was chosen second-most family-friendly, second-best for groups, and in the top five for best Italian and best for business lunches. 

This can't be good news for Chelsea Lin, the honest and hard-working Seattle editor for Citysearch, whose job description does not extend to corporate promotions like this contest. But stop and think: If there's a "Best Of" feature on a website or in a publication, who's making the call? Who votes? The aimless urbanites who comment on Urban Spoon? The barking dogs of Yelp?

I personally find Yelp particularly offensive. Its website is full of petulant comments by "reviewers" who feel insulted because their dinner was cold or they were mistreated by indifferent servers. I have worked in restaurants victimized by Yelpers; I suspect their deliberate misrepresentations are designed to impress their friends. The effect, nonetheless, is crushing: it's like being pursued down dark alleys by a pack of braying dogs. 

Parenthetically, Yelp was at the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit in California earlier this year, charging that high-pressure ad reps would offer business owners an advertising package on Yelp that allowed the merchant to filter negative comments and highlight positive reviews. For the moment, there's an uneasy truce.

Nor is UrbanSpoon, a concept that got its start here in Seattle, immune. Site visitors are encouraged to vote whether they like or dislike a restaurant, but not whether it's just "okay." So diners with extreme opinions will voice them, with bizarre results. The top restaurants for fine dining, if one is to believe UrbanSpoon voters: Wild Ginger, Pink Door, Ray's Boathouse, and Gorgeous George's, the latter a modest Mediterranean storefront in Greenwood with a coterie of enthusiasts for its garlic chicken.

Based purely on the like/don't-like vote, the most popular places in UrbanSpoon's Seattle are Paseo (the Cuban place in Fremont), Carta de Oaxaca (Mexican in Ballard), Wild Ginger, Kingfish Cafe, Agua Verde, Bakery Nouveau, Pink Door, the Phinney Ridge outpost of the Red Mill Burger chain, Ray's Boathouse, and Quinn's Gastropub.

(Disclosure is called for. My personal blog, Cornichon.org appends an UrbanSpoon logo to restaurant reviews, some 150 local spots so far, linking back to the restaurant's page on the UrbanSpoon website. By Urbanspoon's calculation, that makes Cornichon the number-three ranked blog in Seattle, and number 11 worldwide.)

KING-TV's "Best of Western Washington" has greater transparency. The rankings are by a national outfit called CityVoter, a five-year-old company which provides the online interface for similar contests in 125 markets around the country. The KING-5 promotion at least has a regional focus, so the "Best" isn't necessarily in Seattle. In the 2009 voting, Canlis was named most romantic, and Jak's, the Met, and El Gaucho pulled down best steakhouses. But Chuck's Seafood Grotto (in Snohomish) and The Depot (in Seaview) were named best for seafood, ahead of Ivar's (!), Anthony's, and Seastar.

CityVoter takes nominations from merchants as well as consumers, has a system to prevent multiple votes from individual fans, and doesn't exchange votes for ad dollars (though merchants can offer "insider deals" to fans who vote for their business). Last year the system tabulated 200,000 votes; the 2010 "contest," which ends in mid-October, features over 8,000 nominees in close to 200 categories, so there will be plenty of "Bests" to go around.

So how'd the winners do it? The Citysearch contest allows anonymous nominations, so restaurants are free to nominate themselves in the most unlikely categories (Chao, the bar on Capitol Hill, for best breakfast?). The system is supposed to prevent multiple votes from the same IP address. 

But Sullivan's has a local PR firm that helps with its social-media campaigns, and a corporate training program that motivates the bejeezus out of its staff. Kasbah? Hard to say. Despite the hoopla, the place was virtually empty at 7 p.m. one recent Friday. Maybe Romance was striking out in Ballard. Or, to quote an insider who cannot, of course, be named: "I can't imagine anyone would take this seriously."

The tragedy of bogus "Best" lists is that Citysearch ad reps will fan out across the landscape any day now, if they haven't  already, offering, for a small fee, to place bugs, buttons and "Best Of" logos on the winners' and finalists' profile pages. The winners, having spent mightily on the effort, will (presumably) pay up, gladly. To the victor the spoils, and to the patron the check.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).