Cheated by Choice

Last winter, one of my best friends came to visit me in New York. As the sous chef of the James Beard award winning The Willows Inn, Nicholas Green is one of the most accomplished young cooks in the country.

Nick travels to eat and this trip was no exception. As we huddled over my laptop browsing through the list of Time Out New York’s 100 best restaurants, Nick looks over to me and says, “This one is supposed to be pretty good.” I reply, “Looks great,” but after double-checking Yelp from my phone I reply, “but a lot of people seem to either love it or really hate it.”

The search continues.

After browsing dozens of alternatives, he turns to me and asks, “What do you think? I can’t decide.” I ask myself, if this is so hard for him, it can’t be any easier for the average eater.

More options doesn’t lead to better choices

We crave options. Living in New York City, it’s easy to feel appropriately entitled. This is the city that has everything, especially when it comes to food. According to Yelp, there are over 50,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone. But with an average rating of nearly four out of five stars, it’s never been harder to differentiate the average and the awful from the extraordinary. When everything looks and feels the same online, how does one choose?

The Last Eats experiment

Last Eats is an experiment in radical selectivity. Each user answers the following question: “if you only had time for one meal in [any given city], where would you eat and why?” The answer to this question contributes to a dataset of only the top restaurants. These are meals that have become the best extensions of ourselves, our friends and our communities.

In this way, we are reinventing food discovery—only the best restaurants in cities all over the world, curated by the people we trust the most — our friends.

Choice is empowering, up to a point

In a world of complexity and choice, never have we been so overwhelmed by options — and it doesn’t just pertain to cuisine. I walk into drugstores and browse Amazon reviews for deodorant before I make a purchase. “This one is cheaper, but this one got much better reviews,” I say to myself shaking my head as my time and my sanity waste away. I’ve got enough decisions to make in a day. My energy should be spent on something better.

The incessant window-shopping that comes from a deluge of options can make any decision in our digital age unnecessarily difficult. We are being paralyzed by choice.

Choice Paralysis

As part of my thesis at ITP, I spent time researching choice paralysis and why it’s so hard for us to choose. Two of the preeminent experts in the field, Sheena Lyengar and Barry Schwartz, have come to the following conclusions:

With too many choices, it becomes difficult to choose at all. When one finally comes to a decision, one is more likely to take longer to decide, make a worse choice and make a less satisfying choice.

When applied to food discovery online, it’s easy to get bogged down in reviews forever. When one eventually does decide from the countless four star reviews, he or she is likely to choose a worse restaurant. When there are 49,999 other restaurants in Manhattan on Yelp, it’s easy to think a better option was one click away. The result is we end up less satisfied and more frustrated by our wasted time, energy and money.

Solving Choice Paralysis

The recipe for solving this paralysis is simple:

  1. Cut. Less is more.

We don’t need 50,000 options to find a great place to eat. We need one word of mouth recommendation from someone we trust. And with a dataset of only the preeminent restaurants in a given city, we know we’re selecting from only the best.

2. Personalize. Make the options relate to you and your values.

Every restaurant added by a user to Last Eats is the most immediate, simplest expression of a their values and culinary preferences.

3. Make it vivid. Have the options feel tangible.

With every Last Eats declaration, a user has the choice of selecting a photo taken at their favorite restaurant from Instagram or uploaded from their camera roll.

Trust is the dealmaker

The overwhelming majority of people I’ve spoken with say that a friend’s recommendation is the single best way to discover great food.

We live in an age of options. Unfortunately, so many of the digital discovery tools that exist aren’t designed to help us choose. Quantity is given precedence over quality. Before the internet, there was nothing more fundamental than a word of mouth recommendation from someone you knew and trusted. The value and utility of these personalized, direct recommendations is only more pronounced today.

Our Goal

With Last Eats, we are bypassing the jaded reviews from anonymous strangers, impersonal algorithmic distillations, and the tastemakers who assume your values are just like their own in exchange for the clarity, simplicity and honesty that comes from the people who have always been best at helping us decide—our friends.

If you only had time for one meal in your city, where would you eat?