Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Phineas And The Harpies

My bride, the Belle of Ballast Point, and I were dining at a local Tampa eatery the other day and the topic of "dining out" came up. I mentioned in that conversation that one way we decide on a dining venue is to look to Urbanspoon and click on a restaurant's website to see their menu. That menu not only has to tempt our taste buds, but it must display some originality.

When I say, "display some originality," what I am referring to is this: if the menu in question looks just like the menu at dozens of other restaurants around the Tampa area (and the sameness in the Bay area is stifling), then why bother. I can't see driving, let's say, across Gandy Bridge just to eat at a restaurant that serves essentially the same menu items I can get on this side of the bridge.

We also consider the reviews on Urbanspoon, both by the diners and the bloggers. Those reviews can be very helpful or a complete waste of Internet bandwidth. Take the reviewer (please) who wrote, "The chicken. 'nuff said." Well, no there wasn't anything said except the writer is functionally illiterate. Was the chicken good, bad, or indifferent? I mean, come on, give us something to work with here. And, why anyone would feel compelled to review a Publix Deli, WaWa, or a Burger King, with accompanying parking lot photos, is beyond me...but they do!

There are a few really good Tampa Bay food bloggers, and Sweet Polly is probably the best. She is witty, intelligent, and a great writer. Her reviews are grammatically correct, she is either a great speller or has heard of Spell-Check, and her reviews contain pertinent (i.e. useful) information: cuisine, menu items, prices, and whether the food and experience was good, bad, or indifferent. Other bloggers near and far would do well to try emulating The Epicurean Perils of Sweet Polly.

Then we have the bloggers at the other end of the spectrum. These are the ones that some have called the "food whores". These are the contributors to Urbanspoon who trade glowing food and restaurant reviews for free food. Local food joints mention free grub and hooch, and they descend like the harpies snatching food from poor Phineas (see Greek mythology).

Personally, I have nothing against free food and wine, but I will not trade a grand and glorious review for free stuff. To me, this takes away from the reviewer's credibility and that of Urbanspoon. Consider this: how can every morsel of free food that crosses your lips be sheer perfection? This begs a philosophical question. If everything is perfect, then is anything perfect? Without a comparison - up or down, good or bad - how can it be said everything is perfectly delicious?

Well, it can be said that everything is delicious because the restaurants are paying these people to say that. Write a bad review and I doubt that you would be invited back or be invited by any other restaurants that wanted to jack up their standings on Urbanspoon. And, yes that is the reason for tossing Phineas's food to the harpies.

Just recently, a hole-in-the-mall Pizza Hut wanna-be in Pinellas Park had a harpy event, and five of them showed up. All of a sudden this restaurant that few had ever heard of and many could care less about landed on the Urbanspoon top ten "Talk of the Town" list right up there with Datz, Datz Dough, Piquant, and Anise.

I'd like to say more power to them, because in the over-all scheme of life "it don't mean nothin". The harpies are stuffing their faces with free food, the restaurants are getting what essentially amounts to free advertising by feeding these moochers, so everyone wins. Right?

Not really. Urbanspoon is getting nada, zip, zilch, zero out of this. But the real losers are the people who look to Urbanspoon for honest, unbiased assessments of the restaurants they are considering; cuisine, quality, quantity, service, decor, dress code if any, and adult beverage availability. What about prices? It is rather difficult to list prices in your review if you ate for free or if what was served is not on the "food for the commoners" menu.

Speaking for myself, I could give a rat's patootie (i.e. buttocks) what the harpies are served because what is placed in front of them is not likely to be what is served the general public. 

Same salad...
...same restaurant.
Trust me on this! I have compared photos from other promotional events to what I have been served at the same restaurants.

As a "for instance": there is a glaring difference between the promo salad (on the left) and the mashed flat salad (on the right) that had been prepared earlier in the day and then stacked in the fridge for several hours, before being served to me at a high dollar restaurant in Tampa.

Unless you are one of the harpies, guess which salad you would have been served.  Still, there is nothing that I write or can say that will change anything. The food whores will still ply their trade and some restaurants will still exploit them. For the rest of us, the important thing to remember is this: it is just a game that we don't have to play, but it's nice to recognize the players.

For full disclosure:

I, too, am a contributing reviewer for Urbanspoon. The Oracle has never accepted free anything in exchange for our reviews. We pay full listed menu prices for all food and drink. We dine anonymously and have only been recognized one time. This was on a subsequent visit and that visit did not warrant a re-review. We did get free beer, but so did all the other customers.


  1. Oh, stop. :p You're embarrassing me.

    The side-by-side salad photos are priceless! lol

    1. But, sweetest of Polly's you deserve praise and recognition for excellent food blogging. You certainly aren't going to get it from the local food industry "main streamers" because you don't kiss patooties...rat or otherwise. I kissed a patootie once and it wasn't the gas, gas, gas, I thought it would be.


      Jumpin' Jack Flash

  2. Oh, sometimes I do. The difference is, our "patootie kisses" are not for sale. They must be earned.