Words: Shamim de Brún
Images: George Voronov
Anyone who has ever paid through the button noses for a lousy meal knows that, without restaurant research, you’re left picking at your plates in a half-empty dining room, having been served the exact facsimile of the same meal over and over again.
Thankfully, social media gives us access to a previously untapped fount of knowledge: the Random, Nameless Stranger. Even better, a whole bunch of random nameless strangers brought together in a one-stop shop of restaurant wisdom: video content.
Food Social Media’s critics will likely deride it as a self-perpetuating guide. An ecosystem all its own which exists so people can have the same experiences as the beautiful influencers they admire. Thereby feeling more like them. A mecca for the undiscerning, full of videos by a one-time tourist for the next tourist. We all know you can’t believe everything you read or watch online. But this sort of criticism neglects these public online spaces as a valuable source of local knowledge.
Between the thirst traps, the unboxing vids and the relentless CapCut templates featuring Pedro Pascal in various stages of undress, TikTok/Reels are flooded with restaurant content. That is because most people under 35 and, to a greater extent, under 25 pick their culinary excursions from socials.
It feels easy to trust someone who is your *vibe* online to tell you where to go in the real world. But should you trust someone based on *vibe*? Aesthetics and vibes are curated and manipulated. Socials are wild, unregulated west full of vagabonds and neer-do-wells trying to sell you on vibes. So how do you, the viewer, work out a good place from a tourist-trap online?
There are many ways we all inherently sort content into valuable and irrelevant. We are an era of people who know we can’t trust everything we read online, and yet we can take videos with real people in them at absolute face value. You might think that you’d have to be stupid to be tricked into a mediocre and more expensive restaurant by an emphatic influencer. But this just isn’t the way the brain works. Psychological research shows that fun videos can bypass careful analytical reasoning. That means they can seduce even the most intelligent and educated people. No one is completely immune.
So here are some tips and tricks to separate the diamonds from the stick-on diamontes in the roughage of TikTok and Instagram.
In all walks of restaurant choosing, we advise a healthy dose of cynicism. It’s important to remember that most of social media is fake. Many people out there just want free shit and have a pretty enough face to get a following. Others are simply rich enough to eat everywhere and record it. Needless to say, restaurants are always trying to sell you something. Same as influencers. So you have to look at every TikTok like an ad. However, there are also gems: people, accounts, videos, and blogs that are good enough to be informative and reliable.
How do they talk about the food and drink? Do they focus on the flavours, textures, and price, or is it more generally about the experience? Of course, the more the TikToker talks about the actual food, the better the place is. Some pretty basic red flags for us are: Just listing the dishes and saying they were all great. The words fab or foodie and any video with the phrase ‘run, don’t walk’. They usually mean that people are trying to get you to go somewhere for reasons beyond the food.
How many gimmicks are there? Even some good restaurants have some. But the more gimmicks typically, the more likely a place relies on them. If you see a restaurant that looks unappealing in an otherwise nice-looking or trendy area, the food is likely excellent. This eatery clearly doesn’t care to spend money on renovations or appearances. Maybe it’s because the food is usually good enough to compensate for all the faff. A great example of this in Dublin is M & L Chinese. The food is so good that its reputation sells it, and it doesn’t need to go the whole hog on decor.
Have they just put a nostalgic tune over mediocre food to trigger your childhood joy? This is a legit sales technique used in all kinds of advertising, and while sometimes it can just be a trending sound for gaming the algorithm, it smells to me like the content isn’t so much about the food as it is about the likes. Which in turn means the food is likely to be meh.
Are the posters courting controversy? Absurdly hyperbolic reviews like this aren’t unusual for TikTok. Many TikTokers are in it for the clicks, and hate gets more clicks. It always has. So if they’re outraged a lot in their videos, I’d rate them much lower on the trustworthy scale.
Do the restaurants focus more on decor than food? Flower walls, rope swings, neon ‘This Must Be The Place” signs, velvet everything and rose gold anything all glaring signs that say we’re in it for the aesthetics. Usually, if the aesthetics are what people pose in front of, the food tends to be meh. Not necessarily bad per se, just generally not that great.
In the same vein, if the view is excellent, the food doesn’t have to be. So, a lot of the time, it isn’t. Paying for the view is a different thing from paying for the food. In the same way, a gaff in Sandymount is much more expensive than an actual mansion in Sligo. Establish your priorities for dining out. Sometimes, you want the fantastic view but be prepared to sacrifice flavour. Many people are okay with a sub-par meal at the Acropolis to take in the view, which is why most people are there in the first place.
If the video is posted by an influencer, consider whether they have any qualifications or have they worked in service or as a chef? Now I’m not saying you can’t get recommendations from people who haven’t done a course or whatever. But generally, people who have worked in the biz in some form or other genuinely have better recs. For example, even though I’ve worked in food and drink for years, I still hit up specific bartenders I trust when I need a rec. The same rings true online too.
Does the poster live in the city or place they’re talking about? Travel influencers are ten a penny, but they typically are in it for the aspirational flex content. The food is often secondary. I am more likely to trust a video where the person genuinely lives and proudly shows off what their city has to offer. Plus, they usually don’t even see the tourist traps.
Does the food look the same as every second video on TikTok? It could be an ad or a gift meal PR plan. While they can glean some good spots and help small places get started, if you see too many of the same vibe, it could also mean that the content isn’t genuine. This might also mean food won’t be as ‘fab’ as the relentless onslaught of videos makes out.
Another thing to watch out for are videos which give out arbitrary ratings but do not explain why or how they got there. For example, labelling something a seven without giving a reason for deducting points is usually done to gamify the algorithm. That said, if they provide a genuine reason for their ratings, this is a sign of an excellent thought-through video.
Do they seem to be getting special treatment? Influencers pretty much always get shit for free, or are well enough known (especially in a small community like Dublin) that they get special service. So if the video is selling you on what a good time they had, that tends to mean they are maintaining their relationship with the business in some way, shape or form. While that doesn’t mean the spot itself is bad, it does mean that the recommendation is not coming from a fully authentic place.
It’s important to note that the quality of the content is untethered to the quality of the food, as is the quantity of videos about it. You could have one mediocre video about a spot, and it could be the actual best restaurant in the city. And sometimes, the most engaging and fun creators to follow don’t actually go to the best restaurants.
It’s not all ‘how red do the flags need to be’. Here are some of the green flag rules of thumb we follow to identify good content.
If the posters mention the actual price, then you at least know what you’re paying for, and you can weigh how good the food looks against the cost and assess the value.
Does the restaurant itself have objectively meh or nonexistent social media? Oftentimes the best restaurants skimp on the socials budget. Running a restaurant is a tiring, thankless business sometimes, and little I-know-a-place-s try as they might just don’t have the savvy or expertise to dominate on socials. So often times if you see an interesting video about a spot and they can’t find the actual spot or it looks kinda crap on socials it’s actually a good sign.
If a posters talk about ingredients, then it’s likely good enough to click save on.
When the video is a little educational without being too jargon-heavy, you’ve usually found a good one with someone who has distilled information well. Which is truly the key to making good TikTok content.
If the food is the main focus, then in all likelihood, they’re in it for the love of the feast, which is always a good sign.
When a poster adds culturally relevant info on the dishes where applicable, you can generally trust that they have done the leg work, researched and know what they are talking about.
If they are thoughtful enough to mention dietary requirements and veggie-vegan options, they are making a video for more than just the clicks.
This one is more intangible, but if the poster is less aspirational and genuinely feels authentic, go with your gut. Of course, you can’t quantify authenticity, but like the female gaze, we all know it when we see it.
Bonus points: if you find a TikToker who is insightful, kind, and in it for the love of the food wherever it is they are in the world.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are many other intangible cues that it’s hard to find the words for. But sure, at least it’s a place to start. Happy Hunting, and may the odds be ever in your flavour.
Elsewhere on CHAR: You Are A Little Treat Girlie, Aren’t Ya?