The day was blustery and the door propped open. The only thing that stood between us and the wind was a curtain of strips of heavy plastic. It was 11 a.m. and the restaurant was virtually empty, so our server brought out a large bowl of dark chicken-bone soup before we had the chance to open our menu. Small tidbits of corn and ligament gyrated gently in the murk at the bottom of the bowl.
I looked on with wonder: To me, this was the ultimate show of hospitality. It reminded me of the way my mother would hand me a bowl of bone broth after she’d spent hours attending to it at the stove. The waitress proceeded to take our orders — in Chinese, of course — and soon the empty broth bowl was whisked away as new dishes piled onto the table. I did not take out my phone to try and snap a Instagrammable picture of the plate of tripe, with food in shapes one would not even have thought edible, or the boat of ground beef and pickled green onions — overwhelming in its messy thrown-togetherness and underwhelming in its monotonous color scheme.
I probably would not have visited this restaurant if I had first scoped it out on Google Reviews, where its rating teetered at a 3.8 out of 5 due to complaints about ‘lack of service’ and where there were no pictures of the food. This is worrisome, because the food was excellent, and my whole family agreed that the nuances of flavor were just the way they should have been in a precariously preserved hub of authentic Chinese cuisine like this one. How would I have known if I did not walk in and give it a chance?
Customers savvy with and active on photo-sharing social media tend to flock to restaurants with food that has been crowd-approved and that looks good on camera. According to a by economists from UC Berkeley, a half-star improvement in online ratings makes a restaurant 30–49 percent more likely to be fully booked during peak dining times.
As for photo-sharing, a study from Sheffield Hallam University research 59 percent of people in an online survey reported they had visited a restaurant after seeing user-generated photographs of its food on social media, and 16 percent reported they had avoided a restaurant after seeing user-generated photographs of its food on social media.
“In the old days,” restaurant owner Ben Walton, “you wanted people to say nice things about you, but word of mouth has evolved. If you want people to say nice things about you now, you have to make sure your dishes look good.” Social media presence — particularly the photo-sharing network — makes or breaks business.
But the unphotographed, “unshared” space matters too. If the crowd seeks solely the aesthetic experience, it may amp up selective pressure on restaurants that create a particular experience (that is, one that is heavily visual). As another Daily Princetonian columnist has noted, restaurants that push out non-photogenic food — no matter how delicious it is — either evolve to conform to the standards of the crowd or else the market.
This restaurant, where ugly chicken soup bloomed warmth in the stomach and where delicacies like tripe poured forth in endless sustenance, tells a different story. The restaurant’s internal culture — the welcome sight of the restaurant employees (often all family) inhaling white rice together at a table in the back, while another snips away at a crate of green beans dumped onto the adjacent table (in the eyes of the Yelp reviewer, an unprofessional and unaesthetic transgression) — is what preserves the authenticity of food, a home away from home. I believe that more than just my Chinese-American family would find the food and the experience worthy. But the “crowd” online leaves this kind of experience in the dust; the crowd fails to curate and lift up a diversity of experiences. Am I just clinging to my nostalgic past experiences, or is there something to be preserved here?
Allison Huang is a first-year from Princeton, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.