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?