The Book Club

Journalistic Integrity, and Other Oxymorons

I’ll do you one better: Let’s pose as guidebook writers, and get someone else to pick up the tab for our visit to Niagara. I’ll impersonate the Lonely Planet writer, and recommend seeing the Falls the “authentic way,” by barrel.

It’s true that listening to a guidebook’s cheerleading gets tiresome. But a travel guide full of panned restaurants is useless. If a book doesn’t like a place, they shouldn’t list it. The exception, of course, is in small towns or isolated locales (e.g., Liberty Island) where a forgettable restaurant or hotel might be the only option. Another factor that discourages negative reviews is the risk of a libel suit.

The real problem is that none of the guides sift through all the stuff and tell you what’s right for whom. Even in a general guidebook there’s room for specialization: the best green spots, the best museums and galleries, etc. Fodor’s has suggested itineraries, Access and Frommer’s have rating systems, but it still seems that you’ve got to read the entire book to make sure you’re not missing something that you’d enjoy, and that can be wearisome no matter how well they’re written.

When I worked for Let’s Go, editors cobbled together a list of restaurants, hostels, and hotels and sent them complimentary service vouchers, which they would sign and return. Researchers could then visit the establishments anonymously, and present the voucher when the bill arrived. This method does prevent preferential treatment, but I do think that a free lunch can compromise your review whether your employer or the restaurant pays–footing the bill is an integral part of the dining experience, and it’s harder, if only slightly, to rate the value of a meal someone else buys. In general, though, I’ve found travel writers to be honorable folk. And even the unscrupulous are more interested in eating for free in restaurants they have no intention of listing than in taking kickbacks from low-quality establishments in exchange for inclusion. One way or another, the interests of the readership are served.

It’s wrong to say that these guides don’t take reader feedback into account. Lonely Planet (and Let’s Go) usually acknowledge the readers who wrote them helpful letters in the back pages of the book. This feature is strangely absent from my New York Lonely Planet, but the most recent edition of LP’s India book has four pages of readers’ names. Zagat’s may be good for finding a culinary sure thing, but you’ll have to stand on line with the rest of New York (or in line with the rest of Chicago). And I think it’s naïve to use their ratings as an absolute measure of restaurant quality. Locals have different interests, attitudes, and palates than tourists, and would be accordingly harsher on theme restaurants. And before taking Fodor’s to task for praising Michael Jordan’s chops, admit it: You’ve got to look pretty hard to find a bad steak in Chicago.

As for theme restaurants in general, they’re merely indicative of the fact that a lot of people travel with their children. The theme restaurant, as a pacifier, is a stroke of genius. The overdone décor gives the short of attention plenty to gawk at. The food is bland enough for even the most finicky adolescent palate. And celebrity sponsorship is a behavioral modification technique rivaling Santa Claus: Kids shape up quick if you can con them into thinking that Michael Jordan or Sly Stallone might show up at any minute. Mediocre food at inflated prices is (I imagine) a small price to pay for the respite these restaurants provide for the harried parent, and guidebook writers feel duty-bound to include them. All the same, Lonely Planet gets extra credit for noting that the Harley-Davidson Café is “so commercial the menu’s available for sale at $10.”

Having spent so much time defending my former colleagues, I’m afraid I’ve left you little new to work with. I’d still like an explanation: Why are Frommer’s New York titles multiplying, when the Web should be pushing them into extinction?

Jodi, I doubt that I’ve done much to advance the science of travel guide writing, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our discussion. Rumor has it that Walter Cronkite is opening his own theme restaurant on West 57th Street. We’ll toast your safe return to New York with a “Sloe gin (That’s the way it) fizz” (complimentary, I hope).