The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

May 16, 2014

Can technology help you and your friends choose a restaurant?

Friday, May 16, 2014 — "Do you want to get dinner next week?" In my experience, this question inevitably leads to a long quasi-negotiation, conducted via email or text message. It usually goes something like this:

Friend 1: Sure! Do you have a place in mind?

Friend 2: Not really! I'm up for anything. Maybe we could meet in Brooklyn after work?

(At this point we've narrowed it down to a borough of 2.6 million people. Doing great!)

Friend 1: Sounds good. Are you in the mood for going someplace nice or something more low-key?

Friend 2: Hmm, I don't know. Maybe we could go with pizza to split the difference?

Friend 1: Oooh, let's do pizza. There's Franny's, Saraghina, Motorino, Roberta's;

Friend 2: Well, Roberta's has that outdoor bar area you can wait in. If the weather's nice, we can go there, and otherwise, we can do Franny's?

Because of two people's desire not to be perceived as pushy and/or their general indecisiveness, a decision that could have been made in two steps ends up taking six. And if there's a Friend 3 involved, expect to add at least another couple of steps-unless Friend 3 is vegan or deathly allergic to gluten, which usually helps narrow down the choices. (By the way, the above dialogue is based on an actual recent discussion. We went to Roberta's.)

Deciding where to eat, drink, relax and chat with friends should be a pleasure, but instead it's an engine of hesitancy and chagrin. As a result of that hesitancy and chagrin, you often end up going to the same handful of tried and true restaurants instead of branching out. What if technology could solve this problem by collecting a party's various dietary, monetary and atmospheric preferences and producing a restaurant that will delight everyone?

Ness was an app that promised to do just that. (I say "was" because it was acquired by OpenTable in February and subsequently shut down operations in order to incorporate its algorithm into OpenTable's framework.) Ness looked like the Netflix of restaurants: It invited you to rate restaurants you'd been to, then suggested other restaurants based on ratings made by people with similar preferences to yours. Taking a cue from OkCupid, Ness expressed its prediction of how much you'd like a restaurant as a "like percentage" - the higher the percentage, the stronger the recommendation. Ness' "Recommendations With Friends" feature also figured out where your preferences and those of your friends overlapped.

I decided to put Ness' algorithm to the test by recruiting colleagues to try a restaurant for the first time using the app. I made them promise that they would go to whatever place Ness recommended for us, and 14 brave co-workers signed up.

Which is where I ran into my first problem: Ness' group recommendation algorithm accommodated 10 people maximum. I split us randomly into two groups and then immediately hit my second problem: Ness could recommend a restaurant for each group, but it couldn't help us figure out what night we were all available to dine. We ended up using Doodle to find a night that worked for every member of each group.

Now for the moment of truth: I plugged in the names of the eight people in my group, chose "dinner" as our meal, and limited the geographical area to the West Village, near Slate's office. (I also limited our price range to $ or $$ - Ness' ratings go up to four dollar signs. We work in journalism, not finance.)

With all this information, I expected Ness to spit out the name of the single restaurant with the highest average "like percentage" for all eight of us. Instead, it gave me a list of restaurants; confusingly, the list changed every time I refreshed the page. The main thing that had attracted me to Ness - that it would eliminate all decision-making - turned out to be a vicious lie. I still had to make a decision!

I chose Aria Wine Bar, because it showed up high on the list every time I refreshed it, and because it seemed to have a pretty high "like percentage" for most of the eight of us. But it turned out my boss had already been there - Ness couldn't sort for novelty. I did find a pizza place on the list that no one had tried, but then an editor in my group let me know that she didn't eat wheat or dairy. Ness didn't allow people to input their dietary restrictions, either, even though dietary preferences tend to be the major determining factor when it comes to group dining.

Long story short: After three people bowed out at the last minute, five members of our group went to Aria Wine Bar. (Yes, I did a new search for recommendations for just the five of us. Ness still really wanted us to go to Aria Wine Bar.) It was hard to communicate with one another there, both because of the high volume of the dance music playing over the loudspeakers and because we were seated mere inches away from our nearest neighbors. We ordered appetizers to share and ended up with an unconscionably cold slab of mozzarella; our pasta entrées were bland at best. Afterwards, we all agreed that we would not recommend Aria Wine Bar to a friend.

So Ness did a great job of recommending a restaurant none of us would like. Instead of tailoring its recommendation to our preferences, it seemed to target the lowest common denominator among the five of us.

There's time for OpenTable to iron out some of Ness' kinks and to add some potentially helpful new features. As for me: I've gone back to the old-fashioned, six-email-negotiation technique. This technique is awkward and time-consuming, sure - but after trying Ness, I've come to see it as a necessary evil.

 

1
Text Only
Opinion & Letters to the Editor
  • Almost half of America's obese youth don't know they're obese

    WASHINGTON - The good news is that after decades of furious growth, obesity rates finally seem to be leveling off in the U.S.. The bad news is that America's youth still appear to be dangerously unaware of the problem.

    July 23, 2014

  • Darth Vader is polling higher than all potential 2016 presidential candidates

    On the other hand, with a net favorability of -8, Jar Jar is considerably more popular than the U.S. Congress, which currently enjoys a net favorability rating of -65.

    July 23, 2014

  • D.G. Martin Where did all these new voters in North Carolina come from?

    “Voters born elsewhere make up nearly half of N.C. electorate.”
    So begins the latest DataNet report from the UNC Program on Public Life, directed by former journalist Ferrel Guillory.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Patrick Gannon Some light for Dems in their time of darkness

    RALEIGH – Earlier this year, state Sen. Ben Clark, a Hoke County Democrat, became a hero for a day among his party and environmentalists when his amendment to require more well water testing near future fracking sites passed the Senate. It even gained the support of a number of GOP senators, against the wishes of the Republican bill sponsor.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • mama.jpg What we get wrong about millennials living at home

    If the media is to be believed, America is facing a major crisis. "Kids," some age 25, 26, or even 30 years old, are living out of their childhood bedrooms and basements at alarmingly high numbers. The hand-wringing overlooks one problem: It's all overblown.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Doug Creamer Maintaining hope

    Gardeners are facing challenges with the weather this year. It seemed like we were getting great conditions in April and May. The weather was warm and we were getting some good rains. Then sometime in June the rain stopped. It got so dry that I didn’t have to cut the grass. While I enjoyed the break, the garden was not happy at all. I was having to water quite a bit to keep the vegetable garden alive and growing.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jason O. Boyd I may be a bit behind the times, but at least I can find ‘America’

    I seem to be reading about and dealing with technology a lot lately.
    I  love technology and have always been fascinated by gadgets of all kinds and the wonderful things they can do. You never seem to go through an entire day without some form of invention enhancing your life.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Brent Laurenz Meeting out in open helps negotiations move ahead

    RALEIGH – State lawmakers reconvened in Raleigh on May 14 promising a brief legislative session this summer, but as July moves along they are still in town and tackling big issues.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Larry's Sketch 7.16.14.tif They don’t give a darn for Duke University

    John “Duke” Wayne’s heirs are suing Duke University over trademark rights.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    WASHINGTON - For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

House Ads
Seasonal Content