Is The Best Restaurant In Chicagoland A Brazilian Steakhouse In Downers Grove?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Dec 17, 2012 4:20PM

2012_11_15_OpenTable.jpg Last week we got an email that gave us pause. OpenTable.com often uses its immense data-collecting power to create restaurant lists: most romantic; best brunch; most likely to have a reservation on a Tuesday night. Last week, they sent us a list of the 100 best restaurants in America, as chosen by OpenTable users. Aggregated from more than five million reviews, this should be the pinnacle of crowd-sourced greatness, right?

Well, only if you believe that Chicago doesn't have a single restaurant worthy of top-100 status. We had 0 (yes, 0) restaurants on the list. New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington D.C.; they all made the list. The whole state of Illinois got two nods: Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse in Downers Grove and Perry Street Brasserie in Galena. No offense to our out of town brothers; that's pretty great for them. But how did Chicago get so shafted?

The first answer: the crowdsourcing methodology. Many have talked about how Yelp and other user review systems can punish ambition and innovation—someone may not quite understand what the chef is trying to do, so they give them a bad review. More often, someone gets a bee in their bonnet and decides to punish a restaurant. Last week, we were looking up an address on Yelp and saw a 1-star review that began with the sentence "I know this restaurant isn't open yet but..." and almost cried. Plus, let's not even talk about the number of people who say "The food was amazing, but I can't imagine paying that much: 1 star." It's a valid response, but it doesn't "rate" the restaurant so much as register a single complaint.

In this case, the margins for 100 best restaurants were so close that even one mediocre review from a disgruntled client could kick them off the list. Even Chicago stalwarts like Blackbird, Sepia and Girl and the Goat have a few 1 and 2 star reviews. Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse? The lowest they have is 3 stars and there are only 2 of those out of 225! It's also worth noting that it only rates those restaurants that happen to use OpenTable. Many of Chicago's best—Schwa, Next, Alinea, Elizabeth—don't use the system. Perhaps there's something about the dining environment of Chicago. Our abundance of restaurants may lead to a more critical population, which is great in the real world of customers and economics but in the universe of crowdsourced data can actually hurt the community as a whole.

You could look at this as a failure of crowdsourcing: silly diners who don't get that these aren't the greatest restaurants in the state. They don't have Grant Achatz or Stephanie Izard in the kitchen and they don't have an address on West Fulton Market, so how could they be amazing? Or you could look at it as a strange kind of genius. Clearly the folks at Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse are doing something right. Mike Gebert at Grubstreet actually interviewed the general manager, who talked about how proud they were to get this award and how hard they try to make sure everyone has a good experience.

So, while we wouldn't use OpenTable's list as a way to recommend great American restaurants (in the food magazine sense), perhaps there's something to be said for it after all. And maybe we should head out to Downers Grove for some steak.