Restaurants, the Internet age and why hype can be a dangerous thing

Khao San Road is a Thai restaurant in downtown Toronto. It has a four-star rating on Yelp (based on 352 reviews) and a 93 percent rating on Urbanspoon (based on 1,035 votes). Some impressive numbers, indeed. Plus, when you Google “Best restaurants in Toronto,” this Thai joint figures into the top-five (and sometimes top-three) of most people’s lists.

These are the reasons why they had a 45-60 minute wait at about 9:30 pm this past Saturday. These are the reasons why they can charge double what other Thai restaurants in the city charge. These are the reasons why we chose to eat there. And finally, these are the reasons why most people choose to eat where they do, no matter what city they live in.

But should they be?

We ended up getting take-out that night as their 10 pm closing time essentially guaranteed us that we weren’t getting a table. After waiting 30 minutes to get our food, it was time to pay. We spent more than $30 on two dishes: Pad Thai (pictured above) and green curry with rice. Not exactly exotic, right? These are standard Thai dishes that we could have found at any of the other countless Thai restaurants in the city. For half the price and a fraction of the wait! Frankly, I felt a little ripped off.

The food? It was fine but not worth the money nor the wait. In my mind, for $16, I better be getting one damn special Pad Thai.

Full disclaimer: I have eaten here in the past and the food was much better so maybe they simply had an off-night. Also, their sister restaurant Sukhothai is delicious.

I’m not hating on Khao San Road, But still, the evolution of a restaurant’s popularity is interesting to me. Why do people (ourselves included) choose to pay more and wait longer for a product that really isn’t much better than the cheaper and quicker alternatives? How much of all this is really about the food?

Obviously, a restaurant can’t survive without a quality product on their plates. But once a restaurant becomes trendy and hip, it takes on a strange momentum of its own. And it’s in this moment (what Malcolm Gladwell might call the tipping point) that the experience becomes less about the food and more about external factors. Once a restaurant becomes the “new place you just have to try,” people will pay whatever they have to pay and wait for ridiculous amounts of time just to get a table. They’ll pretty much do whatever it takes.

“I’ll sit in the corner table! I’ll sit at the bar! I’ll stand up and eat! I just really need to try your fish tacos!”

And yes, I acknowledge the irony that we chose Khao San Road on Saturday. I’m not denying that I’m part of the problem. But at least I’m aware that there is a problem. That is what I learned on Saturday.

So what are some of these external factors? First off, Torontonians love to discuss restaurants, as do most other inhabitants of large, urban areas. So nobody wants to be left out of the loop. Some people want to say that they’ve tried a certain restaurant because they think if they haven’t, it somehow hurts their credibility as a knowledgeable urbanite. Some people simply like to be seen in certain establishments. Or they like to be able to tell the story afterwards.

Notice that I didn’t use the word “food” once in the previous paragraph.

Look, I’m not against the idea of trendy, hip restaurants. It’s great for these establishments and to be fair, the food is usually pretty damn good. But what I am against is the idea of going to a restaurant for reasons other than the food, for something as abstract and hard-to-pin-down as hype.

On Saturday night, I didn’t give a hoot about being seen there. I just wanted some good food. And it was clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the price and the wait were not worth the food. And I don’t think we’ll be sucked in again. Where’s the nearest Thai Express, anyway?



Filed under Food

9 responses to “Restaurants, the Internet age and why hype can be a dangerous thing

  1. This is a great article. You are correct about the nature of eating out. I’m involved in a few Thai grill pop- ups around London and work in a busy Thai place in London. I agree with what you say- with a new restaurant people will pay more and wait longer without getting angry. However once a place promises a product it needs to deliver it or people do get angry. Nice article, thanks

    • jamesmccallum

      You’re right that once a restaurant achieves some notoriety, it needs to continue delivering a good product to stay relevant. I guess that’s what annoyed me on Saturday. For whatever reason, they didn’t do that.

  2. Tom

    Getting take out at a restaurant you couldn’t get a table at and then complaining about the quality of the food is ridiculous. Obviously the way hype works in the Toronto is over the top, as it is in most major cities, but judging a dining experience after you’ve been denied a seat and then eaten what the kitchen put out at least ten/fifteen minutes after it was cooked is not a reasonable reflection of that restaurant, and putting it on the internet unfairly tarnishes the restaurant’s reputation. They shouldn’t have given you take out. That is their only failing here.

    • jamesmccallum

      I didn’t set out to tarnish their reputation but I guess I had to in a way to make a larger point. To be fair, I did point out that maybe they had an off-night and I did plug their sister restaurant. But you’re right. They probably shouldn’t have given me take-out.

  3. Nancy

    This article brilliantly displayed the Tipping Point phenomenon on how a cheap simple street food in Thailand can crossed over the line to trendy and hip and expensive, thanks to those affluent urbanites.

  4. I’ve eaten there before and I liked it. It’s really hyped up, though. There’s ALWAYS a wait. You should see the crowds outside of Khao San Road before they open for dinner.

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