Claremore Daily Progress

Community News Network

May 15, 2014

Can technology help you and your friends choose a restaurant?

NEW YORK — "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
Community News Network
  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 21, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 21, 2014

  • NWS-HB0713-HowardMartin-004.jpg Airman laid to rest back home in Indiana six decades after death

    The mystery of what happened to a military transport plane that disappeared in the fall of 1952 into an Alaskan glacier was solved two years ago when a helicopter crew spotted the wreckage. But it took another two years to retrieve the remains of Airman Howard Miller and 16 other servicemen passengers. Saturday, Miller was laid to rest in his hometown of Elwood, Ind., with full military honors. Hundreds turned out for the funeral and burial services.

    July 13, 2014 2 Photos

  • New York to offer free lunch to all middle-school students

    New York's $75 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that began last week includes the first step toward offering free lunch for all 1.1 million students, expanding a program now reserved only for the city's poorest children.

    July 9, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 11.24.10 AM.png VIDEO: Pilot buys pizzas for storm-delayed travelers

    A Frontier Airlines pilot went above and beyond the call of duty when a recent flight from Washington, D.C. to Denver was diverted to Cheyenne, Wyoming due to bad weather.

    July 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • Why North Korean cheerleaders may soon descend on the South

    When you think of North Korea, "cheerleaders" may not be the first thing that springs to mind. The Hermit Kingdom is perhaps better known for less savory things like gulag-like labor camps and leadership purges.

    July 8, 2014

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 11.46.13 AM.png VIDEO: Foiled beach gear theft goes viral

    Video capturing a bizarre confrontation with two women allegedly attempting to steal beach gear on a Florida beach has gone viral.

    July 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 10.40.20 AM.png VIDEO: Sleeping fan suing Yankees, ESPN for $10M

    A fan caught on camera sleeping during a recent game at Yankee Stadium has filed suit against the Yankees and ESPN, claiming he suffered emotional distress when two announcers mocked him on the air.

    July 8, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: A boom in firework sales

    This year could be quite the boom for fireworks sales across the U.S. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, or the APA, sales are already off to a good start.

    July 4, 2014