Does Popular Equal Edible?

When I waitressed at a country club where the manager didn't approve of us servers disparaging any dish, my stock response to customers who asked about a notoriously bad entree was a cheery "People order it!"

I always figured guests understood what my honest non-endorsement meant. But in this age of crowd-sourcing, I suspect the gambit's lost its sting. Increasingly, it seems, servers and diners alike are conflating popularity with merit.

At an uptown restaurant last night, a woman at the table next to mine scanned the menu and asked her server "What's the most popular?" Not surprisingly, he reeled off a list of dishes with the most eye-catching ingredients and intriguing descriptions. I don't need to have eaten in a restaurant to know anything with bacon or lobster is bound to sit high atop the popularity pile. But I do rely on knowledgeable servers to steer me away from travesties like the nearly inedible beef dish that's apparently winning popularity contests at this eatery.

Still, I can't blame the woman for asking. When I ask servers for recommendations, they now almost always launch into a spiel about the restaurant's most popular items. Sometimes, of course, popularity is warranted: I don't go to Twisted Root for a garden salad. But in most restaurants -- especially newish ones -- basing an order on what everyone else is ordering makes no more sense than only listening to the Billboard 100 or only watching the current top-grossing movie.

I believe a server, who's likely tasted his or her way through the menu, should be able to provide better guidance than a popularity index. But what do you think? Is popularity a reliable indicator of a dish's excellence? (If you want to know which restaurant I'm talking about here, tune into my Dish review in the Observer in two weeks.)


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