When we lived in London in 2000 and 2001, it took a while for us to figure out how to find good restaurants. The London Zagat guide was alarmingly unreliable. Just looking in the window wasn’t much help, either. Great-looking, packed restaurants often served near-inedible food. Finally we bought a copy of the Time Out Guide to Eating and Drinking — whether it was recommended to us or we just happened upon it in a bookstore, I don’t know — and our lives were transformed. If the Time Out Guide said a restaurant was good, it was good. (Later we found the Guide Michelin to be equally reliable, but mainly just for higher end fare.)
Forward to earlier this week, when we went out for dinner in the West Village two nights in a row (the Boy was with his grandparents). First we ate at Fatty Crab, a cool-looking cubbyhole of a Malaysian restaurant on Hudson Street. We got there so early that there was no wait for a table, but that soon changed. (See the photo at left for how things looked outside the restaurant when we left.) And the food was transformatively good, if artery-hardening (the fatty duck and the pork rind and pickled watermelon salad were highlights). The waiter was wonderful, and talked us into getting a bottle of Pinot Auxerrois that matched our meal perfectly. In other words, the crowds were a good indicator of quality. Fatty Crab has also gotten gushing reviews, too, so it’s not really a case of crowds vs. experts. But still, let’s give New Yorkers some credit here.
The next night we tried the Spotted Pig on Greenwich Street, which has also gotten lots of positive press, plus a Michelin star. We didn’t get there until around 7, and were told the wait would be an hour. So we left and headed over to Greenwich Avenue to a restaurant called Good, which Time Out New York had said was “closer to great.” No wait there. After sitting down in the mostly empty room we realized it was the same space that once housed Campo, a vaguely South American restaurant that really was close to great. It turns out Good is owned and run by the same guy who ran Campo, Steven Picker, but on the evidence of our meal everything but the mixed drinks is at best mediocre, and the service clueless. This time the experts said go (a brief search turned up one other positive review), but the lack of crowds was the better indicator of quality.
So what’s the point of all this other than to snidely imply that New Yorkers are more culinarily sophisticated than Londoners? Just that the answer to the great question of whether crowds or expert individuals know best is it depends. The experts at London’s Time Out were clearly better at discerning quality than the mass of Londoners, but in New York the crowds agreed with or outdid the critics — or maybe just noticed a decline in quality that had yet to set in the last time the critics visited Good. It’s also possible that the real point is that while restaurant-hopping in the West Village I took a photo of that (Anglophile) store where the cat named Molly got stuck inside the wall, and wanted an excuse to post it.