Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

The Trouble with “Best of” Lists

By - Nov 3rd, 2010 04:00 am
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Although it would be fascinating to discuss the evolution of the “Best of” list over the years, suffice it to say that anyone with an Internet connection can now espouse a “top five”  list that marks a favorite brand of beer or a non-methodical  sequence that counts down what they believe to be the ultimate playlist.

The majority of the lists on the Internet are personal or idiosyncratic, rendering them  irrelevant to the conceit being made here: “Best Of” lists — made by publications in modern times using modern methods — are faulty.

Take for example, two recent surveys in which Botanas is awarded the reader’s choice for “Best Mexican Restaurant” (with nearby La Fuente and Conejito’s as runners-up). This is a nice establishment in the heart of the Mexican Restaurant district near 5th and National, but they are really more well-known for sugary margaritas and popular fare than an extraordinary palette range or comprehensive customer service. The critics’ choice of Riviera Maya is more spot-on, but that brings up a few different issues.

In essence, when you ask the audience to pick a favorite it often leads to a lowest common denominator agreement that roots for a memory from personal experience or a conspiracy to stuff the ballot box. When you boil it down, these lists are beginning to resemble the Billboard Top 100  — more focused on packaging and mass appeal than quality of the product.

In a city the size of Chicago, picking a favorite is much harder. For every one ethnic restaurant of note here in Milwaukee, there are 20 of the same restaurant in the metro area of our neighbor to the south. In the smaller city, the appearance is given that there are only a few to choose from, which is not entirely true — if you’re willing to explore.

Filling in a blank is even worse, as the reader is asked to judge by a limited experience range or by what they’ve heard about. This explains how national fast-food chains are able to make it on some of Milwaukee’s annual lists.

Anyone who has seen the movie Big Night can understand the parallel: you may have the best chef making exquisite food, but if folks from across town want big platters of spaghetti with flowing wine, bouncy music and affordable prices — the latter business will win on common appeal factor while your finer diner goes under.

Plus, while a chosen person, object, or place is likely to be popular with a neighborhood, it doesn’t encompass the entire city’s offerings since food critics, article profiles, and self-advertising highlights only certain areas. Beyond that, many businesses don’t advertise far outside of their own neighborhood.

It becomes a matter of awareness and visibility.

How can the public say that Oakland Gyros is the best Greek food available in Milwaukee, when most dining critics have not completely covered major areas of the south and west sides in their columns? I personally conducted a topographical survey a few years ago that pinpointed reviewed restaurants along with profile-raising adverts and general staying power — and found a good 2/3rds of Milwaukee went uncovered by broadcast or print media.

I don’t mean to disparage this year’s crop of populace-voted choices for “favorite” or discourage professional reviewers from exploring the hottest new thing to hit the Third Ward. Yearly lists are often a great way to be exposed to a new thing that may need the financial boost, and it can also add a bit of healthy competition among local businesses.

And I feel like it’s worthwhile to mention that we are going through a ‘down time’, in which the choices are getting fewer and farther in-between as shops and eateries close their doors, people move on, and fascination competes for short attention spans. It’s awfully hard to choose “classiest movie theater” when the Oriental and the Majestic are the only real viable contenders.

But you can never get away from that sneaking suspicion — maybe the first time you get lost on the way to Brookfield or cruising down Forest Home Avenue to avoid the freeway construction — that a corner tavern may have a beautiful fish fry waiting to be discovered. Perhaps folks that know they have something special don’t want others to know about it.

Sometimes, success spoils the magic.

0 thoughts on “Deep-Fried Romantic: The Trouble with “Best of” Lists”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Our very own Mr. & Mrs. M?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Actually, Judith, I would assert that Mr. and Mrs. M don’t do reviews as much as profiles or reactions to dining places as a whole; I’ve always found their work to be more travelogue than critique.

    I find local Best Of lists to pander mainly to certain populations whereas Mrs. M gets excited when I suggest we try out all the taco trucks in the city.

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