At what point does fine dining begin to lose its luster? When do totemic luxury ingredients begin to taste the same? And why—up until a certain point—do tasting menus pale in comparison to fast food?
While a lifetime of good eating across a wide array of cuisines lends itself to the development of taste, this form of conditioning only lays the groundwork for the fullest possible appreciation of a meal.
The actual pleasure you derive from a given restaurant on a particular evening has something to do with your state of mind: the unconscious biases and emotional priming that color the environment and practice of hospitality in a certain way. A good critic—by making repeat visits and maintaining an antagonism towards luxury marketing machinations—can overcome these influences and arrive at some appraisal that more closely approaches objective “truth.”
But, putting these sociopsychological factors aside, there is one more, most insidious influence over the perception of pleasure that functions purely at a biological level. It has to do with each individual’s diet and the kind of food quality they grapple with on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. And it ultimately forms the all-important baseline against which all gastronomic experiences are judged.
The concept of the hedonic treadmill—also called hedonic adaptation—is typically applied to human happiness in aggregate. The term describes “a phenomenon in which people quickly become used to changes, great or terrible, in order to maintain a stable level of happiness.”
Though the theory generally accords that “money, up to a certain point, makes people happier because it lets them meet basic needs,” it also suggests that “buying luxury goods…tends to be an endless cycle of one-upmanship.” In this case, wealth is viewed as interfering with “people’s ability to savor positive emotions and experiences” because it reduces “the ability to reap enjoyment from life’s smaller everyday pleasures, like eating a chocolate bar.”
Methods of moderating the effect of the hedonic treadmill include buying “many small pleasures instead of one big one” as well as “waiting for something and working hard to get it” in order to make it feel “more valuable and more stimulating.”
However, “spending on leisure and services,” as opposed to the “consumption of material goods,” seems to be most effective because it “typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness.” Experiences like “concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes,” or “a hotel room in Monaco” produce “longer-lasting satisfaction” because “they can’t be absorbed in one gulp.” It takes “more time to adapt to them and engage with them than it does to put on a new leather jacket or turn on that shiny flat-screen TV.”
Further, experiences yield “longer-lasting happiness” because they can be reminisced about. Even “the most middling of experiences”—a trip “during which you waited in endless lines, broke your camera and argued with your spouse”—will “typically be airbrushed with ‘rosy recollection.’” While an imperfect experience—thanks to the peak-end rule—will be remembered as perfect, “the buzz from a new [material] purchase is pushed toward the emotional norm” and eventually prompts more spending.
Fine dining, ostensibly, forms one of the experience economy’s most interactive and fulfilling forms, engaging the full array of senses in a social setting with a high degree of personalization. However, gastronomy’s history as a means of class distinction—combined with a new era of conspicuous consumption empowered by social media—has lent this form of leisure a materialistic underbelly that engages the hedonic treadmill.
There is a reason you have chosen to focus on overall hospitality rather than cuisine. For that latter term necessarily concerns itself with individual taste perception while the latter denotes a certain practice of human interaction. The craft of hospitality, as experience, comprises the kind of social bonds that amplify happiness.
In contrast, it is only when cooking subsumes the pursuit of pleasure into some larger philosophy—like the expression of terroir at each moment of the season—that the impulse towards seeking greater and greater pleasure is subverted in pursuit of some more meaningful, transcendent quality.
Analyzing hospitality, as you have recently discussed, means incorporating as full a range of experiences as possible to deliver a verdict that encapsulates all the pleasure each possible demographic of consumer can hope to find. Though applying this degree of comprehensive consideration is, essentially, an impossible task, pursuing such a standard lends an evaluation that speaks to the widest audience of readers and aids them in forming those social bonds with a diverse array of guests.
Focusing on cuisine, instead, means advocating for a singular, egotistic standard of taste that is generally insignificant to the wider public. The mainstream critic—who labors to influence a certain readership—and the social media braggart—who toils to present their palate as the finest around—both fail in their tasks due to the hedonic treadmill.
Repeat experiences may be useful when refining and solidifying your own impressions. They may signal when a particular dish’s novelty effect has worn off (or that the preparation’s quality is resolute). Nonetheless, each encounter with the restaurant will still be judged relative to the reviewer’s habitual diet—a dimension of their life that is totally obscured to the audience. Thus, while writers and influencers may appeal to their overall “experience” as a source of authority, the condition of their biological tasting equipment—their position on the hedonic treadmill—remains totally unknown.
Before returning to the topic of dining, an example from the wonderful world of wine might prove illustrative.
Once, in a past life, you overhead the editor-in-chief of wine rating publication field a phone call from a journalist who asked how he would explain what distinguishes a “95-point” wine from a “96-,” “97-,” “98-,” “99-,” and “100-point” wine. Despite trading in these kinds of granular distinctions every day, the honcho hemmed and hawed before admitting he would have to ponder the question and call back at some later point.
Of course, it bears being said that the 100-point (or 20-point, à la Jancis) rating scale will always be an arbitrary structure. You respect what Robert Parker has accomplished as a consumer advocate, creating a heuristic that demystified an industry that was both inaccessible and often downright fraudulent historically. Likewise, you also rue vintners and roving consultants who have privileged chasing those points over crafting distinctive wines. An easy parallel may drawn to chefs who consciously chase Michelin stars—copying Bibendum’s favored tropes—rather than defining their own manner of success. Is it any surprise that the Guide purchased The Wine Advocate only a few years ago?
At a foundational level, you sympathize with producers, writers, and oenophiles who view scoring as a bastardization of wine’s potential as an art object. Numerical ratings, though they feed consumers’ latent desire to discern “the best,” obscure the singular feeling that arises when one stumbles upon the perfect wine for their particular palate. Critics can guide you part of the way there, but they—and the conceit that a bottle must be judged relative to its peers—will always ultimately form an impediment to reaching one’s personal summit of taste.
Heuristics, at their best, form training wheels that aid in the development of some standardized appreciation of quality. However, past that point, they transform into feedback loops that align consumers with archetypal drinking profiles and, thus, market forces.
Given that wine appreciation has long formed an intimidating pastime and status signifier, outsourcing one’s taste to a critic forms a tempting crutch. When you drink (and broadcast that drinking) in order to impress some chosen audience, praising a “100-point” bottle seems like a slam dunk. You need not even master the jargon of acid, tannin, body, and finish—just exclaim how “smooth,” “elegant,” or “special” the wine is (with a namedrop of the producer and a couple of emojis thrown in for good measure).
This conspicuous consumptive practice, channeled through all-too-conscious expectations drawn from critical praise and price point, is entirely removed from wine’s historical appreciation as a humble companion to meals and general conviviality. Drinking with the goal of affirming some critic’s opinion—and passing it off as your own—turns you into little more than a pretentious trained seal. Moreover, it closes off any avenue to hear what that little, searching voice within really has to say about a wine.
Getting back to the concept of the hedonic treadmill, a representative wine rating scale will comprise the following ranges and descriptions:
- 96 – 100: An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase and consume.
- 90 – 95: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.
- 80 – 89: A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.
- 70 – 79: An average wine with little distinction except that it is a [sic] soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.
- 60 – 69: A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.
- 50 – 59: A wine deemed to be unacceptable.
It should be added that The Wine Advocate admits, “as a final note,” that “scores do not reveal the important facts about a wine” and that “the written commentary (tasting note) that accompanies the ratings is a better source of information regarding the wine’s style and personality, its relative quality vis-à-vis its peers, and its value and aging potential than any score could ever indicate.”
Drawing on this scale, we can label any wine scoring at least 85 points as “good.” Approaching 89 points, it goes from “good” to “very good.” Rounding 90 points, it suddenly becomes “outstanding” and maintains that level until, at 96 points and over, it is labelled “extraordinary.” 100 points, theoretically, represents a “perfect” wine. Though some critics never award such a score, most do.
Given that only 20% of American wine consumers are classified as “$20+ wine buyers,” securing a “good” or “very good” bottle for under that price would seem like a triumph to the vast majority of imbibers. And yet, subconsciously, scores in the 85-88 point range are viewed with suspicion. Retailers rarely post placards that rate a wine less than 89, for that crest—between “very good” and “outstanding”—has come to define the baseline for what, in practice, is ”good” (or, in effect, worth the money).
89-100 points forms the real range within which consumers that pay heed to scores may be induced to trade up and splurge on a lauded (relative to typical spending patterns) bottle. However, the difference between the “outstanding” and “extraordinary” categories comprised by that range seems almost entirely emotional.
A score in the 96-100 point range demands a certain quality relative to a grape and region’s orthodoxy: “displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety.” But, past that point, a high degree of weight is given to that “profound” (“felt or experienced very strongly or in an extreme way”) quality.
For a wine novice—used to slumming it in the 70-79 point “average” range—a wine in the 80-89 point range could easily, relatively be experienced as “profound.” Something in the 90-95 point range, almost assuredly, would be “profound” while that 96-100 point category is almost hard to conceive of with relation to their everyday plonk.
The wine novice, in effect, traverses the hedonic treadmill at a rather low speed. A sudden lurch forward—via a wine in a higher scoring category—strikes them as perceptibly better. However, bottles drawn from the very top range deliver diminishing returns (with regard to relative pleasure) until acclimation to the new baseline occurs. For it is hard to comprehend a “complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety” until one has experienced “exceptional complexity and character” and, before that, “various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.”
By comparison, the wine critics that hand down these scores run on the hedonic treadmill at a breakneck speed. They may, like Parker, biologically be a “supertaster”—someone “whose taste bud density is up to a hundred times that of normal folks.” But, more importantly, their professional life guarantees them access to a dizzying array of reference points that aid in forming that vision of “complex character” as it relates to “a classic wine of its variety.”
That emotional dimension—of “profundity”—may still be innocently and honestly assessed. However, in its degree, that aspect of the score can easily be oriented relative to “96-,” “97-,” “98-,” “99-,” and “100-point” wines that the critic encounters (and defines) on a habitual basis.
It is only from an advanced position on the hedonic treadmill that such fine shades of gray can be appreciated. At the same time, their evaluation is anchored to the startling amount of wine across all quality levels that wine critics must contend with. There exists, at least in theory, a robustness to the points scale that is drawn from its users’ engagement with wines in each of its ranges constantly.
But, to return to that editor-in-chief, the single point differences that separate several “extraordinary” wines are impossible to define abstractly. They—and this may even include everything rated from 90-100 points—only exist as part of an intricate grid of reference points that are only available to those who move, perpetually, at the highest speed on the hedonic treadmill. And the information such ratings contain—if, in fact, they possess any objective value at all—principally provide utility for consumers that maintain a similar pace.
Now, let’s try applying this logic to the evaluation of dining experiences.
When it comes to restaurants, numeric ratings tend to be more rare. This makes sense, for consumers are faced with hundreds or thousands of options within distinct categories of wine but may only consider a handful—or maybe, at most, several dozen—of options within a genre of dining in a particular city.
Notably, LA LISTE utilizes a 100-point scale drawn from standardizing “more than 600 guidebooks and trusted publications,” converting their scores, weighing them (using a “trustworthiness index” based on chef polling), and processing them to calculate an average. That mean is combined with online customer reviews (given “10% weighting”) to yield the final “La Liste score,” which—in the 2022 edition—is topped by Guy Savoy (99.50%) and followed by an eight-way tie for second place between restaurants possessing a 99.00% score.
Numeric ratings also feature as part of popular review aggregate sites such as Tabelog, Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Google Maps. However, these resources actually provide their users with a five-star scale. It is only by averaging these whole numbers that the sites arrive upon the decimal ratings that actually define their scoring. (To draw on the aforementioned wine scale, a 4.0-4.4 rating is viewed as “good” to “very good” while the 4.5-5.0 range comprises the “outstanding” to “extraordinary” category. A “5.0” or “perfect” score, though conceivably possible to maintain, proves practically impossible once users have submitted enough reviews for an establishment).
Legacy media (newspaper/magazine) restaurant critics, as well as Michelin, opt for rating scales ranging from zero to three or four stars. As singular sources of “authority,” these organizations do not deal in averages or decimal places. Rather, zero stars denotes something like “poor,” “satisfactory,” or simply “unawarded” while ratings of one star and up award increasing degrees of greatness. This system has become the gold standard (or been perceived as such) because it allows its organizations to certify quality across a range of genres and styles without ranking establishments (within its categories) head-to-head. In doing so, publications and Michelin can tiptoe around numerically defining “the best,” leaving that judgment to diners that follow their recommendations.
Lastly, the Opinionated About Dining and William Reed “World’s 50 Best” lists opt for a survey-driven, ordered system of ranking that abandons any pretext of “rating” and concerns itself solely, year after year, with defining “the best.”
Most of these systems, by nature of using aggregated data, work to control the effects of the hedonic treadmill.
In LA LISTE’s case, “guidebooks and trusted publications” see their ratings inflated or deflated based on “trustworthiness” as defined by the industry. It is hard to know what grudges are carried into this chef polling, but—assuming good faith participation—the measure would work to exclude scores by critics that are routinely too soft (low position on the hedonic treadmill), too hard (high position on the hedonic treadmill), or inconsistent. Likewise, LA LISTE’s “10% weighting,” as applied to online customer reviews, averages scores from users maintaining myriad positions on the hedonic treadmill then deflates their value relative to the professionals.
Ultimately, a LA LISTE score reflects a complex, weighted amalgamation of “trusted” mainstream critics with small dashes of influence drawn from middling publications and the wider public.
Dedicated review aggregate sites such as Tabelog, Yelp, Tripadvisor, and Google Maps stymie the effects of the hedonic treadmill by presenting a mean score drawn from the totality of user ratings. This, naturally, comprises reviewers who occupy a wide range of positions on the hedonic treadmill. However, given that maintaining a high position on the hedonic treadmill is—necessarily—exceptional, it is safe to assume that aggregate sites skew towards reflecting an “average” (as far as their self-selected population goes) level of perception.
Of course, these sites reward their most prolific, “elite” members with cosmetic baubles. Yet, importantly, they do not weight power users’ reviews any more heavily. Their ratings, while more likely to be featured at the top of the page, factor into the same average in the same way. Any extraordinary taste or knowledge “elite” members possess—any advanced position on the hedonic treadmill they might claim—can only be discerned by reading their content or browsing through their profiles.
In that respect, aggregate sites may function as a form of social media through which prolific reviewers can build a portfolio of ratings all attuned to the same central logic. Each and every score can be judged relative to the other restaurants a given user has covered. Thus, their overall experience (and supposed position on the hedonic treadmill) can be deduced and used to contextualize ratings that break with the masses. (CellarTracker functions in much the same way for wine collectors, with many users having constructed perceived expertise on the basis of consistent, intelligent reviews focused within distinct categories).
Legacy media critics and Michelin, by speaking with the same, singular voice over a long period of time, avoid the trouble of aggregation. They wield their chosen rating scale fully and simply, its weight drawn implicitly from a long history of scores affixed to other establishments. The singular critical voice, in this fashion, operates with a referential, internal logic. Its exact position on the hedonic treadmill is unknown; however, the nature of these critics’ work (covering the entirety of a dining scene) provides them with a plurality of reference points. Yet, relative to tasting wine (in which hundreds of bottles can be scored over the course of a week), a tension remains: what exactly do they eat week to week, and with what mentality do they approach their most hallowed subjects?
Finally, there is not much of further interest to note regarding Opinionated About Dining or William Reed’s “World’s 50 Best” list. (That is, relative to what you have already written). However, beyond simple aggregation, it is worth remembering that OAD weighs evaluations more depending on how far the survey taker has travelled for the experience. This feature, which you have decried for disadvantaging the appreciation of local character, would seem to privilege the opinions of a jet set that—through habitual gastronomic tourism—maintains a high position on the hedonic treadmill. This population, the “false foodie elite,” play at being tastemakers for the wider public without necessarily sharing any of the same everyday reference points.
At an overarching level, it is clear that aggregation is beneficial because it subsumes opinions from both high and low positions on the hedonic treadmill into a larger “average customer score.” At the same time, the most popular aggregator sites provide a pathway towards establishing a given user’s baseline and orienting yourself relative to their preferences.
Meta-aggregators like LA LISTE and opaque organizations like OAD and William Reed aim at offering a more “expert” composite of opinions. However, their lack of access to any individual ratings drawn from singular critics denies readers the chance at finding a kindred palate. You must, instead, simply buy into the ranking’s larger sense of prestige and take it as gospel. The goal, of course, is the advancement of the publisher’s reputation, and this interest naturally incentivizes making a fashionable, distinctive choice for “number one” that might outshine its competitors.
Michelin is really not so different with regard to its own commercial interests. However, Bibendum has held the line at rating, promoting, but not actually ranking its chosen restaurants relative to each other. The Guide’s organizational voice, though subject to its own biases, promises a thorough investigation of every target market. They have positioned themselves, historically, as arbiters of gastronomy capable of running the hedonic treadmill at the highest speed. And the whole idea of the “Michelin Inspectors” is meant to grant legitimacy to such an anonymous process.
Ultimately, the concept of the hedonic treadmill is best applied to distinct individuals: influencers, aggregate site users, and professional food writers who purport to evaluate quality. These are the natural counterparts to wine reviewers—if only because ranking the “best” bottles across different varieties, vintages, and regions is largely considered a fool’s errand. (Though that doesn’t stop some publications from doing so).
Following this logic, you will first probe how an influencer may traverse the hedonic treadmill.
As a content creator, they will privilege visiting each splashy new restaurant at least once—preferably during its preview dinners or, at the very least, as close to opening as possible. The most fitting subjects will have already been hyped by peers or the press. Perhaps, thanks to a crack public relations team, an establishment will reach out to the influencer themself. Or, otherwise, these social media mavens will be drawn like moths to a flame towards any place that possesses the right look.
For Instagram—and, more recently, TikTok—are creative domains that flatten food from a multisensory into a purely visual pleasure. The camera not only “eats first,” but constructs relevance in accordance with a dish’s aesthetic and viral appeal. While there have been efforts to defend the “ugly delicious” in contemporary food culture, social media does not afford the kind of attention spans willing to learn why that seeming bowl of slop actually tastes great. Rather, the medium is the message, and the messengers know their job is to present a steady stream of superficially appealing comestibles that do not demand the audience think too hard to get their tummies rumbling.
Thus, the influencer gravitates towards places touting attractive interior design and pedestrian fare (à la Alla Vita). They prize the smoke and mirrors of molecular gastronomy restaurants serving striking, indecipherable plates whose supposed constituents taunt the viewer (“that is supposed to be hamachi?”). Or, perhaps, it only takes heaps of processed candy, sprinkles, and whipped cream to send tongues wagging.
A classic, “Moron A eats Chicago” style influencer—in their slavish devotion to viral, visual content creation—eats a lowest common denominator diet that secures as broad of an audience as possible. Perpetually chasing hype, in this manner, saps the development of actual discernment. By shoving deep fried and artificially colored crap down their gullets on a regular basis, these influencers alienate themselves from the sort of simple, seasonal eating that actually builds a sustainable food system. They eagerly occupy a low position on the hedonic treadmill that inhibits them from appraising the elegance and nuance that define fine cuisine. In truth, the sugar rush of the junk food they consume might very well be preferred to the lighter, balanced flavor composition of fresh, soulful cooking.
The “Moron B eats sushi” variant of influencer has decided upon a more specialized sort of brand. (They could very well focus on burgers, pizza, pasta, fried chicken, vegan food, or dessert, but sushi allows for a more instructive example). This kind of content creator aims to be exhaustive within their chosen category. They may still chase hype and prize what is viral within this area of focus. However, such an influencer distinguishes themself by maintaining a top-to-bottom rotation of notable establishments. This is because, to compete with “Moron A,” they must pump out a similar number of posts. So they feature every sushi restaurant under the sun—from mayo-laced maki to high-end omakase. Despite this wide range of experiences, “Moron B” occupies a medium position on the hedonic treadmill. They can appreciate the finest fish and rice better than most, but, in the interest of content creation, they spend too much time covering throwaway fare to delineate the very finest examples of the craft.
Meanwhile, the “Moron C’s Michelin journey” style influencer fancies themself a budding gastronome. Rather than specializing in a particular genre of cuisine, they prefer to focus on quality as defined by Bibendum. Taking the Guide’s ratings as gospel, they go about ranking the one-, two-, and three-star joints relative to each other. While there may not necessarily be much crossover between the cuisines, totemic luxury ingredients are certain to appear and naturally make for appealing content (along with all the other niceties of a premium hospitality experience). Such an influencer seemingly occupies a high position on the hedonic treadmill; however, the totality of their reference points is unclear. They may visit every Michelin-rated restaurant once but will miss the finer details that are only apparent with repetition. Likewise, the details of such a content creator’s everyday diet are often obscured, meaning that they may routinely splurge but actually occupy a more average place on the treadmill outside of their social media “highlight reel.”
“Moron A,” “Moron B,” and “Moron C”—each being influencers—anchor their taste to an arbitrary sample of establishments. In line with their chosen medium, they privilege perpetual, viral, visual appeal rather than adopting a diverse, natural diet drawn from a sincere engagement with their particular environment. Thus, each flavor of promotional pimp establishes a narrow hedonic baseline that precludes the development of actual expertise. They are not selling taste, but the appearance of taste—and that’s why they are a marketer’s wet dream. Influencers sway innocent consumers through photo editing, hyperbole, and algorithmic gamesmanship. Any thought of enriching the wider food culture is traded away for faux followers and fleeting “fame.”
Next, you will reflect on how users of review aggregate sites measure up to the hedonic treadmill.
An average user of such a site, let’s call them “Yelper A,” reviews a range of businesses within their given geographical area (as well as select establishments throughout their travels). Based on 2018 data, some 49% of all reviews on Yelp are for restaurants, and many participants deal exclusively with this category. While selecting a star rating would appear to be the most consequential task, the site requires accompanying written copy. Ideally, the text should “offer a rich narrative, a wealth of detail, and a helpful tip or two for other consumers.” In practice, it should hopefully be accurate, based on firsthand experience, and free of any conflicts of interest. The average word count for Yelp reviews clocks in at 125, and the site’s own data has shown that longer reviews correspond to lower ratings.
But “Yelper A” knows nothing about that. They innocently evaluate places they deem worth the effort, awarding one star for “not good,” two stars for “could’ve been better,” three for “OK,” four for “good,” and five for “great.” Those lower ratings, commensurate with a longer review length, offer an opportunity to vent or take revenge on businesses that fall far short of expectations. The higher ratings, in turn, reflect an establishment that has met high expectations or surpassed low ones. So a particularly good McDonald’s franchise, no matter how humble the fare, might be rated “great” while a disappointing fine dining restaurant, despite objectively serving food of a higher quality, may merely be judged as “OK.”
“Yelper A” is particularly incentivized to share experiences that fall at the extreme ends of the rating scale because their reviews demand a certain amount written content (and emotionally charged encounters provide greater motivation to provide it). However, their position on the hedonic treadmill—and the credibility they wield within particular genres or spending categories—can be deduced by investigating their wider profile and noting the individual’s reference points.
Any user, like “Yelper A,” who does not consciously style themself a “restaurant critic” likely resides towards the middle or low end of the treadmill. They report their good or bad experiences at everyday eateries and, every so often, are blown away by a fancy steakhouse or tasting menu that aspires to something beyond the quotidian. “Yelper A” may not be equipped to discern the fine shades of quality at such a level. Nonetheless, their fawning reviews—or harsh criticism (in cases where they lack requisite appreciation for a form)—are absorbed, as intended, into the aggregate. These salt of the earth users form the foundation of mainstream taste against which raters with greater expertise (or ulterior motives) will be averaged.
On that point, an “elite” user of a review aggregate site, let’s call them “Yelper B,” operates in much the same manner as Morons “A,” “B,” and “C.” You concede that some prolific participants in these communities are motivated by a sincere, good faith exchange of information. However, just as influencers become seduced by the “fame,” attention, and perks drawn from a burgeoning follower count, users who get a taste of Yelp’s “Elite Squad” (or merely see that it exists) will be drawn to earn and keep the special status.
Yelp describes them as “role models on and off” the site, as well as members of an “influential and diverse community of writers, photographers, and adventurers.” “Elite-worthiness,” they go on to say, is based on “well-written reviews, high quality photos, a detailed personal profile, and a history of playing well with others.” Those who fit the bill—after nominating themselves and being accepted—are awarded a “colorful” badge on their profile followed by a “Gold Elite Badge” (for five years of service) and a “Black Elite Badge” (for ten years). Though membership may be revoked from those who “besmirch the Elite Squad’s reputation,” users who maintain their yearly status are invited to “attend exclusive events” from “cocktails on boats to playdates with penguins.” However, as enticing as those perks sound, you think the main draw will always be the status—like Opinionated About Dining’s “leaderboard”—the badges grant in the eyes of other users and businesses that stand to be reviewed.
With this in mind, “Yelper B” is motivated both to maintain and flaunt their pathetic status. Unlike the innocence with which “Yelper A” offers their perception of everyday experiences, the “elite” user approaches each establishment with the pomp of a tastemaker. They view it as their duty to guide the unwashed masses—meaning they labor to offer the very first review or, if that proves impossible, to break with the mainstream in order to command attention. In other cases, as when evaluating a longstanding, lauded “bucket list” restaurant, “Yelper B” will take it upon themself to gild the lily. They will praise the establishment as never seen before, using all manner of hyperbole and puffery to sanctify just how special the place really is—and how they cannot believe it took them so long to get there.
“Yelper B,” though their personal tastes may lead them to patronize certain establishments, is ultimately most akin to “Moron A.” Just as the latter avoids specialization to attract as broad an audience as possible, the former best flexes their “elite” status by reviewing as wide a range of businesses as possible. “Yelper B’s” goal, with any given rating, is to command readers’ attention with the most engaging content possible. Towards that end, they do not only chase hype, but quantity altogether. The more places they visit and review within their geographic location, the larger their exposure grows. However, while “Moron A” trades mostly in visual appeal, “Yelper B” must also privilege snappy writing and supposed “insider” tips to go along with their “high quality photos.” Insight, in this process, falls by the wayside as the “elite” user applies a formulaic approach to content creation designed to snare the average reader.
Thus, while “Yelper B’s” wider profile might—like “Yelper A”—be used to judge their reference points and position on the hedonic treadmill, the nature of being an “elite” user often precludes the kind of specialization that would place them further up the hedonic treadmill. Like “Moron A,” prolific reviewers on aggregate sites eat too widely and superficially to say much of note regarding the very best restaurants. Being a harsh critic—and awarding three or four stars to underwhelming luxury dining experiences (however fair)—does not make for the kind of content most visitors to Yelp’s site are after. “Yelper B” chases the same faux relevance as any other influencer and, ultimately, ends up somewhere between the bottom end and the middle of the treadmill with occasional, yet unenlightening, jaunts towards the top.
Lastly, you will consider how professional food writers—across both print and digital media—traverse the hedonic treadmill.
The “Hack A” style of journalist spends their time reporting on openings and closings, profiling community figures, and fabricating “controversies” to fill their quota of content. But it’s not all bad. In exchange for their soul-crushing work, they are rewarded with a soapbox upon which to turn their everyday skullduggery towards aesthetic criticism. Riding on their publication’s dwindling authority, “Hack A” awards no stars for “unsatisfactory,” one star for “good,” two stars for “very good,” three stars for “excellent,” and four stars for “outstanding” establishments. These ratings, removed from the blatant promotion of the influencers and the singular, aggregated accounts of the Yelpers, seem to carry some definitive weight. Yet, in fact, they are filtered through “Hack A’s” contrived editorial and dietary pattern.
Just as “Moron A” perpetually chases hype in creating their content, “Hack A” pursues a personal vision of “newsworthiness.” This style of journalist defines relevance with regard to their own ideology—a kind of latent bias they justify by claiming their profession’s responsibility to shepherd the public—and the demands of their publication. Omission, no doubt, forms “Hack A’s” most pernicious tool, for they shine a spotlight on a diverse, representative sample of establishments rather than wielding their expertise against the businesses that, for good or bad, define the dining scene. By privileging novelty (rather than routinely probing places where consumers most stand to be led astray), they skirt the harder task of technical analysis. The goal, of course, is not to help develop the reader’s own taste but to keep them coming back as a paying subscriber.
Now and then, “Hack A” must confront a splashy new opening or rarefied tasting menu. Compared to their usual beat—defined by wide demographic appeal rather than the thoughtful assessment of complex cuisine—these concepts utterly cow the journalist. So long as they secure some pretty pictures and a couple poignant quotes from the chef, they know they have struck gold. Why undermine a restaurant that, through ambiance or molecular gastronomy smoke and mirrors, is sure to impress the unwashed masses? “Hack A” prefers to cultivate the chef as a reliable source and partner in future event programming. Their work, based on appearances alone, is sure to surpass the run-of-the-mill (yet token representative) establishments that typically feature in the journalist’s reviews. So “Hack A” leads their readers like lambs to the slaughter.
In truth, “Hack A” is not equipped to meaningfully critique more intricate expressions of gastronomy. They, like “Moron A,” spend most of their time shuffling from this place to that place in search of a scoop. But, rather than prizing what might go viral, “Hack A” eats widely and indiscriminately to uncover the right narrative that might appeal to the right demographic. The scattered reference points this process yields possess no internal logic. The quest for “newsworthiness” leaves the longstanding examples of quality—the very ones against which new concepts should be judged—in the dust. So “Hack A,” like “Moron A,” perpetually remains towards the lower end of the hedonic treadmill while occasionally venturing towards the top but never establishing a baseline there.
Given the kind of rating scale such a journalist wields, this is problematic. Their one- (“good”), two- (“very good”), three- (“excellent”), and four-star (“outstanding”) scale calls to mind that used by wine critics when evaluating bottles that are “85 points” and above.
As you argued earlier, distinguishing between the “good,” “very good,” “outstanding,” and “extraordinary” wines that comprise the 85-100 point range becomes, for the wine critic, something of an emotional judgment. Past the point of “finesse and flavor,” “exceptional complexity and character,” and “complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety,” the measure of increasing quality is profundity. However, while this term is hazy, those using the rating scale can draw on a litany of reference points across the full range of the point spectrum to orient each bottle relative to all others.
“Hack A,” in contrast, might have eaten at all of their city’s finest restaurants before, but they do not do so with any regularity (like a wine critic tastes each vintage) and their sense memory fades. Their experience of a chosen concept, when it comes time to review, is weighed against a hodgepodge of establishments drawn from the course of their unrelated reporting. While this may prove good enough when rating places in line with the lower end of the star spectrum, “Hack A” lacks adequate reference points to distinguish “extraordinary” from “outstanding” from “very good.” They may draw on their publication’s historical rankings for context, but those—likely written by a past critic—are often woefully out of date. So they end up making an emotional evaluation—often in line with the same ideological concerns as their reporting—that lacks any trace of expertise (yet is presented as a definitive account). Like “Moron A,” they use hyperbole and sycophantic name-dropping to obscure their low position on the hedonic treadmill.
Another flavor of professional food writer, you will term them “Hack B,” spends less time reporting and more time ranking. They, like “Moron B,” specialize in categories like burgers, tacos, bagels, and pizza. However, such a journalist goes beyond mere content creation in order to affirm some particular standard of quality and order each example relative to each other. (In other cases, their lists may simply define a city’s top representations of the form without placing them in competition with each other).
“Hack B,” in this manner, is equipped to evaluate a certain range of techniques and constructions with a high degree of internal logic. This, of course, is due to the fact that all the entries on such a list serve as reference points for others within the same theme. This kind of journalist, necessarily, must focus more purely on evaluating food. Thus, so long as they duck the reporting duties of someone like “Hack A,” they can avoid expressing the same latent biases that plague considerations of “newsworthiness” and diversity when creating content. (That being said, the malevolent omission of a particular establishment from what purports to be an exhaustive, carefully researched list can be considered just as bad).
The trouble with a journalist like “Hack B” is revealed when they turn their attention towards reviewing establishments that lay outside the expertise constructed within their rankings. For, like “Moron B,” their specialization in categories of comfort food—sampling both low and high quality examples of the form—tethers their taste to the middle of the hedonic treadmill.
Perhaps, in their chosen domain, “Hack B” possesses real expertise. They are intimately familiar with the best examples of a particular food (high position on the treadmill) but retain a mass of reference points (from the low and middle segments of the treadmill) that imbue their rankings—like a wine critic—with relevance and rigor.
However, expertise in pizza or burgers—no matter how impressive in isolation—does not equip such a journalist to evaluate the atmospheric, emotional, and delectable intricacies that define fine dining. “Hack B,” in fact, may not even be able to meaningfully grapple with your average luxury steakhouse. For, while certain fundamentals of balance relate to all food, popular “comfort” categories privilege a kind of immediate pleasure that is entirely removed from the sense of occasion and exploration that characterizes top expressions of hospitality.
“Hack B,” essentially, finds themselves at the high end of a very particular hedonic treadmill that does little to help them navigate the grand hedonic treadmill that encapsulates all of gastronomy. When they leave the pizza parlors and burger joints behind, they find themself easily cowed by all the niceties of a comparatively luxe concept. The food, in its artistry, may blow them away as being far better than the usual crust and sauce or meat and bun. Or, in its subtlety, a refined dish may not measure up to the straightforward appeal of their comfort categories. (Just as a wine critic who restricts themself to bottles under $50 has little to intelligently say about the very finest producers—unless, of course, they somehow do not measure up to the pleasure yielded by those cheaper, everyday alternatives!)
“Hack B,” like “Hack A,” suffers due to the demands placed upon them by their employer. As much as they may want to, such a journalist cannot specialize in ranking “fine dining” or even premium categories like “steak,” “sushi,” and “pasta.” Instead, “Hack B” must labor in accordance with their publication’s dwindling budget and desired wide demographic appeal. That, unsurprisingly, means featuring comfort food—which is fine and dandy and, perhaps, even valuable in bringing their city together. Unfortunately, “Hack B” views the time they dedicate toward creating this content as a sacrifice that earns them the right to authoritatively evaluate more complex expressions of dining.
In that case, they abandon the robust system of ranking and reference points that make their comfort food lists valuable. They claim all the same expertise when, in truth, the two kinds of evaluation could not be more unlike. “Hack B” pays one or two visits to a luxurious concept and decides if it’s “good,” “very good,” “excellent,” or “outstanding” entirely on the basis of their emotional reaction. Lacking the experience to properly contextualize such a restaurant—and having anchored their hedonic baseline to comfort fare—their evaluation carries no more weight than Yelper “A” or “B.” “Hack B” simply has a byline (and no greater accountability either). Such a journalist is likely to express the same latent biases as “Hack A”—only further obscured by the supposed objectivity of their unrelated pizza, burger, and taco rankings.
Now that each of these archetypes have been defined, you can reflect on the big picture.
With regard to the hedonic treadmill, “Moron A,” in an effort showcase their city’s viral eats, maintains a low position; “Moron B,” in their categorical specialization, maintains a middle position; “Moron C,” in their focus on fine dining, maintains a high position; “Yelper A,” in their innocence, maintains a low-to-middle position; “Yelper B,” in their status-seeking, also maintains a low-to-middle position; “Hack A,” in their concern for representative content, maintains a low position; and “Hack B,” in their categorical specialization, maintains a middle position.
You think of “Moron A,” “Yelper B,” and “Hack A” as peas in a pod because they each perpetually chase some version of hype, relevance, or “newsworthiness” to craft the kind of content they think will appeal to their audiences. In pursuit of this engagement, they eat undiscerningly—spanning a wide range of concepts across all quality levels. Though this sometimes leads them to the city’s finest restaurants, their focus is on the lowest common denominator, and their hedonic baseline—despite a wide array of reference points—remains towards the low end of the treadmill.
“Moron B” and “Hack B,” as you have already noted, are kindred spirits due to their specialization. Creating content that comprises as many examples within a particular category as possible lends their work an internal logic and a certain expertise. They possess many reference points; however, their lack of discernment across the chosen theme routinely exposes them to food of dubious quality. In an effort to be as representative as possible, “Moron B” and “Hack B” spend less time with the top examples of the form than they should. But they are generally equipped to evaluate quality within their chosen domain (though not outside of it), establishing a hedonic baseline that is situated in the middle of the treadmill.
“Moron C” reflects a particular case of specialization that aims only at the highest expressions of dining. While they, like “Moron B” and “Hack B,” develop a range of reference points within a certain category, the many cuisines expressed by “fine dining” hamper any easy comparison. “Moron C,” lacking the requisite points of thematic comparison at the low and middle ends of the treadmill, is left making emotional judgments when evaluating Michelin-starred establishments. They maintain a high position on the treadmill, but one that carries with it little insight or relevance to a larger audience.
Lastly, “Yelper A” stands alone and apart primarily due to their motivational structure. By engaging with the aggregate review site naturally, they escape the toxic “content creator” mindset. Yes, they may be induced to share experiences that tend towards the extremes of the rating scale. They might not possess any particular aptitude for evaluating cuisine. But they share their opinion without any concern for cultivating status, and their effect on an establishment’s average rating can be appreciated as expressive of an unprejudiced mainstream.
“Yelper A’s” low-to-middle position on the hedonic treadmill—as expressed sincerely through content that does not aim to please an imagined audience—forms a robust baseline of high utility for the everyday consumer. What’s more, by being blissfully removed from the process of generating likes, clicks, or “elite” status, “Yelper A” is actually empowered to form social bonds with others over the course of their experiences. In this fashion, their perception of a meal—alongside a friend, a date, a partner, or family—actually comes to resemble that of the inconspicuous consumptive masses. Thus, “Yelper A’s” evaluation—while lacking “expert” knowledge from higher up the treadmill—is emotionally more legitimate those of their egotistic counterparts.
In contrast, influencers of all stripes—including professional food writers—cannot escape the gnawing need to develop content. So networks of Morons, “elite” Yelpers, and Hacks eventually form that go out to eat together and crowdsource the process. While, ostensibly, these arrangements would allow for the development of social bonds, these parties’ shared vapidity—their ultimate concern with cultivating status—transforms such a meal into nothing more than a celebration of superficiality. At worst, these groupings serve to encourage cabalistic feedback loops that further impede influencers’ ability to accurately guide the public.
In other cases, these populations endure eating alone in order to keep the content flowing. The benefit being, of course, that the influencers need not worry about competing directly with their counterparts when posting the associated content. Nonetheless—and especially if such a person flexes their status in front of the staff—the chance at developing any meaningful social bond (not rooted in sycophancy) is altogether precluded.
For this reason, you rather like “Yelper A.”
Sure, some of them will eventually turn toward the dark side and become like “Yelper B” (or, worse, one of the Morons). But “Yelper A’s” good faith engagement with their chosen platform proves itself far more important than any supposed “expertise.” This is because any arbitrary motivational structure—like promoting oneself by creating the “right” content—leads to an artificial course of eating that amounts to either a very limited scope of specialization or a total lack of discernment altogether. And, since any given influencer’s position on the hedonic treadmill is obscured unless one trawls through the sum of their content, the public easily stands to be misled by hollow “expertise.”
As always, it is the professional food writers—dressed in an unearned sense of “authority”—that are most guilty of this kind of malpractice. The average consumer is smart enough to recognize a promoter (or self-promoter) when they see one, yet dining philistines might still assume that the names of certain newspapers or magazines carry any weight.
In a separate article, you have posited the development of a tripolar balance of food influencing concurrent with the death of legacy media. At the bottom, you placed people like Morons “A,” “B,” and “C”—social media masters who provide the public with mere exposure to a particular concept. In the middle, you placed aggregate site users like “Yelper A” and “Yelper B” who offer—during the consumer’s next step of research—an easy heuristic through which they may judge if an establishment’s hype is all that it seems. Lastly, at the top (and replacing the professional journalists) will be independent bloggers with well-defined taste profiles who write from a place of passion, repetition, and fine detail rather than contending with deadlines or trite efforts at promoting “diversity.”
The hedonic treadmill, ultimately, matters little for the Morons (who primarily create visual content free of editorialization) and the Yelpers (whose opinions are weighted equally and aggregated regardless of their position). But it is quite consequential for those bloggers who intend to take the crown of expertise from their so-called “professional” predecessors. Free of the content creation paradigm, these independent reviewers are actually positioned to overcome the hedonic treadmill’s effects and attain a greater sense of objectivity than any writers that have come before.
How is that done? Well, you humbly offer yourself as a model.
By spurning social media, you—like “Yelper A”—retain a good faith engagement with your craft. There exists no temptation to promote a particular lifestyle via consistent content creation, nor to tailor your work in accordance with the audience’s attention spans or tastes. You need not worry about hashtags, engagement, or the quality of your photos. You need not worry about trends or hype. There is no feedback loop—no influence of any algorithm—that nudges you in this or that direction. Rather, you engage innocently with your writing, sharing thoughts and experiences that are wholly personal.
“Personal,” in that respect, must also mean subjective. Any review, fundamentally, is shaped by predispositions whose existence escapes even the most conscientious of writers. However, insofar as you have severed any connection to the social media hivemind, your predilections retain a high degree of purity. They reflect a singular expression of taste unblemished by any mimetic desire to go along with the crowd. Your viewpoint, thus, may not be objective, but it is robust, organic, and consistently drawn from the same reservoir of unadulterated perception. This imbues your reviews with a dimension of validity that marks the many evaluations of food and drink they contain as valuable reference points. By orienting themselves relative to your and other writers’ honest appraisals, consumers can attain something close to an “objective” perspective. However, some information remains obscured.
Rejecting social media’s content creation paradigm does not only save you from groupthink. It allows for total control and—most importantly—restraint when it comes to your diet. Whether chasing hype, “newsworthiness,” or the status that comes from specialization, influencers of all stripes must sacrifice discernment for the sake of comprehensively covering their chosen area of “expertise.” The need to eat where everybody else is eating—or to uncover a “hidden gem”—exposes them to more food that is ultimately middling. These reference points can be valuable up until a certain point. However, the time wasted in pursuit of novelty precludes a deeper engagement with establishments of the highest quality.
Though consumers are led to believe that influencers and professional food writers are “experts” due to their wealth of content, constantly creating it—and chasing what will sell—transforms them into rank amateurs when it comes time to tangle with fine dining. When faced with a superlative preparation in a Michelin-starred setting, all the reference points gained at the low end of the hedonic treadmill suddenly count for nothing. The influencer will know the dish tastes good—that its quality wildly surpasses everything else they have eaten lately. But they’ll be unable to define just how good the food is relative to its peers and must, instead, resort to hyperbole or other forms of mindless praise.
(At the same time, a “Moron C” style influencer might be better equipped to evaluate fine dining restaurants on the basis of perpetual exposure to cuisine of that quality. Such a process, however, can often breed cynicism and yields a frame of reference with little utility for a comparatively average consumer).
To your way of thinking, the most effective form of restaurant criticism offers as much expert knowledge and analysis as possible while still privileging the emotional engagement and charm that is sure to strike the majority of guests. This kind of writing is exhaustive and informative, bold in its opinions, but rooted in mainstream taste (without ever being guided by it). Such a balance maximizes utility for the average consumer by delivering rich content in an accessible format.
Achieving this balance while engaging in perpetual content creation proves impossible, for cultivating a constant flow of subject matter skews your hedonic baseline in an arbitrary, craven fashion.
However, if a critic frees themself of that pressure, they can set the table for their evaluations any way they like. You can, in fact, concoct a process that constantly affirms your expert knowledge while also preserving your ability to step into the average consumer’s shoes and experience each concept with some sense of wonder.
Rather than indiscriminately eating across the entirety of the hedonic treadmill—or firmly occupying some myopic position towards the top—you think the biggest rewards are reaped by alternating between extremes.
Monday through Thursday, you eat a simple but nutritionally comprehensive diet sourced from the local Jewel-Osco. Though the quality of the meat, seafood, and produce there pales in comparison to competing chains, the supermarket is thoroughly ordinary (and, thus, valuable). It offers a humble, everyday reference point through which you can judge the superlative standard of ingredients seen in fine dining. At the same time, Jewel-Osco’s modest quality avoids the caloric density and chemically enhanced intensity of processed, fast, and fast casual foods. Thoseitems, while perhaps constituting even more humble a meal than something prepared from fresh produce, can deliver a degree of pleasure that surpasses fine cuisine. (This perception is drawn from levels of salt and sugar that push the palate’s hedonic baseline far beyond where natural foodstuffs could hope to compete).
Jewel-Osco, to you, is the perfect foil. It offers a source of straightforward nourishment that has been stripped of all pretension. It places you in contact with the larger community’s foodways and the efforts of marketers to reach consumers that have yet to migrate towards premium grocers touting a higher caliber of products. The supermarket roots you in the average diner’s quotidian taste. It offers a window—even after so many years of gastronomic indulgence—into the skyrocketing quality of flavor and texture that strikes someone as they first begin to embrace fine dining.
The enjoyment of wine, of course, also goes hand in hand with fine dining, and even a standard pairing is likely to offer a taste of something that surpasses the average diner’s everyday tipple. While the knowledge one develops through conscientious tasting tends to permanently alter how one experiences the beverage, there is some degree of conditioning drawn from an imbiber’s overall drinking habits.
As you previously noted, any wine that is theoretically “85 points” and up will likely be perceived as pleasurable by the bulk of consumers who spend $20 or less per bottle. Anything “90 points” and up, for this same population, will likely seem positively superb. In contrast, it is only those critics who routinely taste the very finest wines that may distinguish the fine shades that separate the “96-,” “97-,” “98-,” “99-,” and “100-point” wines on the hedonic treadmill.
With that in mind, you abstain from alcohol altogether from Monday through Thursday. This ensures that any wine you are served later in the week is given the best possible chance to impress you, for even premium pairings rarely offer the combination of age and value that bottles enjoyed at home can offer. Routinely drinking “90+ point” wine, in that sense, would make most restaurants’ selections seem bang average (and perhaps even woefully overpriced). It would disconnect you from how the vast majority of consumers experience a fine dining beverage program.
On the weekend, after maintaining this abstemious diet, you are primed for a fuller, deeper appreciation of food and wine that rank at the very top of the hedonic treadmill. But you do not go hog wild.
While you do enjoy the occasional bacchanalian brunch, it is dinner that forms the main event on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Thus, on those days, you enjoy a simple breakfast that mimics that of the rest of the week with regard to lightness and nutrition. You hydrate aggressively throughout the afternoon and, only an hour or two before dinner, ingest a piece of fruit or some salad. The purpose of this snack is twofold. It prevents you from showing up to the restaurant absolutely starving (and, as a consequence, either too easily pleased or too demanding—relative to the tasting menu form—of something substantial). The nibble also serves to stem the tide of opening libations that can more easily inebriate you (and numb your senses) on an empty stomach.
Biologically, these decisions ensure that your palate arrives at the restaurant in top form. However, the principle measure through which you control your position on the hedonic treadmill if through careful, consistent selection of reference points.
Rather than a bottom-up, slumming approach to uncovering hidden gems and chasing flash in the pan hype, you maintain a top-down perspective when judging Chicago’s dining scene. You have largely written off Alinea and Ever due to their slow pace of menu development and overarching concern with cosmetic style (of food) over substance (of flavor). Likewise, you have come to learn that Oriole and Kasama’s tasting menus provide diminishing returns if you go more than a couple times per year.
Unsurprisingly, Kyōten and Smyth remain your most important benchmarks of quality. They not only demonstrate, for your taste, the city’s highest technical standard of cookery, but change their menus on a weekly basis. This means they can deliver engaging, imaginative experiences several times a month that form a rigorous baseline against which other restaurants may be evaluated.
Other benchmarks, which you visit with some (though not quite as much) regularity, include Aya Pastry, Bavette’s, Bungalow by Middle Brow, Elske, Jimmy’s Red Hots, Kumiko, The Loyalist, Monteverde, and Professor Pizza. Newer establishments that you have rated highly—like Bazaar Meat, Elina’s, and Rose Mary—may occasionally feature again. However, you typically feel a period of “burn out” after publishing a review that keeps you away from the chosen subject for some amount of time.
This small range of establishments, on a month-to-month basis, defines—along with Jewel-Osco—your hedonic baseline. In practice, the humble diet you maintain from Monday to Thursday (low position on the hedonic treadmill) yields to a select assortment of baked goods, burgers, hot dogs, pastas, pizzas, and steaks (medium-to-high position on the hedonic treadmill) and, most importantly, to what you consider Chicago’s top examples of fine dining (high position on the hedonic treadmill). In a similar manner, your abstemious approach to alcohol earlier in the week (low position on the hedonic treadmill) yields to top quality beer, cocktails, and wine programs (high position on the hedonic treadmill) over the weekend.
Underlying all of this is your choice of dining companions: friends and family of diverse, yet accepting tastes that always arrive ready to have a good time. You do not eat with content creators of any kind or with people who style themselves “critics.” Your party may share its thoughts about this or that dish, but the cuisine is largely subsumed into the evening’s greater sense of occasion. You prize being together, being in the moment, interacting with the staff, and imbibing joyously. You jealousy guard the social bonds you have cultivated with these companions—for it is only through them that hospitality can ever reach a transcendent state. It is also only through them that the effects of the hedonic treadmill can be subverted and turned, at least in part, towards some more sustaining purpose.
Any new restaurant you evaluate is judged relative to these reference points. Over the course of several visits—repetition being an essential part of the process—a chosen subject is first given every opportunity to impress relative to the low hedonic baseline drawn from four days of asceticism. Past that point, as the novelty effect wears off, the establishment is judged more rigorously against the obvious pleasure of your favorite medium-to-high hedonic baseline benchmarks and, most importantly, against the transcendent quality of what you consider to be Chicago’s absolute high hedonic water marks: Kyōten and Smyth.
When evaluating food within a niche genre, you may seek out supplemental reference points within the city to better ground your opinion. However, if an establishment is truly extraordinary, its quality should be obvious (emotionally and with regard to derived pleasure) without the need to cultivate a high degree of expert knowledge. Such a conceit—often associated with ideas of “authenticity”—typically acts to excuse craftsmanship that is inaccessible to a wider audience. If a consumer is open-minded and eager to learn, any superlative experience—even of an altogether new cuisine—should strike them as obviously so. And such a restaurant, likewise, should align with the high hedonic baseline of places like Kyōten and Smyth (that serve rather adventurous items but do so with a clear intention to please).
The process, at the end of the day, is not arbitrarily designed. Rather, from your perspective, it simply amounts to good eating. You naturally prefer to spend a greater amount of time at restaurants that have proven adept doing a few things extraordinarily well or, in turn, are able to cook elegantly in line with the rhythm of the season. You prefer to build personal relationships and make yourself at home in the same venues rather than chase a sense of novelty that experience has taught you almost always fades into irrelevance. Your highest ratings, to that effect, place restaurants in a pantheon of places that you cannot imagine growing tired with (even if certain tasting menus can only withstand a couple visits a year).
Fundamentally, your writing springs organically from the passion you feel for certain hallowed places and a legitimate interest in putting new openings through their paces. This form of good faith participation is exactly what characterizes “Yelper A” and the review aggregate sites at their best. It allows for a definition of quality that weaves many distinct, authentic subjectivities into a tapestry comprised of both shared and divergent aesthetic values.
You only differ from “Yelper A” in the manner that you systematize your diet and aggressively pursue “reference point” reservations to maximize the accurate perception of pleasure. That may sound consequential, yet all lovers of food across all categories of expenditure find their own ways to do the same (even if that just means eating lightly ahead of a “big meal”). Ultimately, it’s the innocent engagement with gastronomy that matters most. It also proves impossible to retain once someone cynically turns their attention towards squeezing status or lucre out of their dining experiences.
Such a concern, upon infecting the would-be influencer’s mentality, shapes restaurants into nothing more than another arena for conspicuous consumption and status insecurity. They, like the professional food writer, see the expression of their authentic self overshadowed by the need to drive engagement and construct “expertise.” Ultimately, though these figures spin their wheels and rev their engines, they have long abandoned any pretext of rigorously or ethically pursuing their craft. They endeavor to flex their authority over consumers—to lure them towards supporting their opaque pet causes—rather than transforming themselves into humble, sharpened instruments in defense of the average diner.
At the end of the day, the hedonic treadmill proves itself to be an effective bulwark against those who, in their self-interest, would work to sap all the joy out of life. This may take the form of basic snobbery—a person of such rarefied tastes and status consciousness that they lose the ability to connect with the common man or woman by humbly breaking bread (or, perhaps, sucking down a corndog). Yet such snobs, so long as they spoon their caviar and sip their d’Auvenay in private, truly bother no one. They might be drawn to pay eye-popping sums for ever-greater degrees of pleasure, but some of the money spent surely finds its way to servers, chefs, and craftspeople that are driven by excellence.
The hedonic treadmill really works to punish those who connive to encourage mindless consumption—those who crave power and influence over the public. In their efforts to appeal to the lowest common denominator, influencers and “professional” food writers spread themselves too thin. They privilege superficial, digestible content over the realization of their own distinctive, personal taste. They try to be everything to everyone yet end up being less than nothing. For their peripatetic—and often solitary or sycophantic—manner of eating is total alien to the average consumer, and the mass of meaningless reference points they accumulate do them no good when it comes time to face the kind of expensive tasting menu for which the public most needs their help.
Lacking the appropriate hedonic baseline—one that marries the average consumer’s quotidian tastes and social bonding with an expert knowledge drawn from deep familiarity with the dining scene’s best examples—influencers and journalists become little more than patsies for hospitality groups that know how to feed them the content they desire. Knowing that those who shepherd the public lack the capacity for intelligent technical criticism, restaurateurs privilege purely aesthetic factors like photogenic dining rooms, environment effects, dishes larded with totemic luxury ingredients, and surface-level “representation.”
The harder work of advancing the craft of hospitality (and educating consumers to appreciate its substance rather than its style) is spurned so that everyone involved in the restaurant’s promotion gets an easy payday. That may mean increased traffic for the owner, engagement (or a free meal) for the influencer, and yet another byline (followed by a bunch of pretty pictures) for the “professional” food writer.
With every consumer that innocently shares their own, authentic experience of an establishment, this cabal’s power diminishes. For those who aspire to control the levers of media might continue to steer the sheep, but each misstep—each occasion in which their ulterior motives warp reality—offers the average diner a chance at awakening.
These critics may work in the shadows, wielding redundant star ratings like “very good,” “excellent,” and “outstanding” that serve to deflect potential detractors, but their days are numbered so long as consumers refuse to stay dumb, deferential, and silent.
In the meantime, anyone who so chooses can more ethically evaluate restaurants by rejecting the content creation paradigm and seeing the “status” it affords as nothing more than a malignant social contagion. With your heart in the right place—and nothing to gain from the process—you will find it natural to want to help your fellow citizens by sharing good and bad experiences. By putting your smartphone and notepad aside (and preserving hospitality’s capacity for forging social bonds), you will see the higher—transcendent—purpose that underlies guiding other consumers toward the same.
Those who answer this calling will find that their natural, modest position on the hedonic treadmill actually affords them greater insight than the people who brand themselves “tastemakers” or “experts.” Those who answer this calling will find—if they retain their innocent outlook—they can escape the hedonic treadmill altogether by consciously engineering a diet that enriches their appreciation of food all across the spectrum.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” and it is time for those who dine in good faith to depose the deluded manipulators who would have them endure a bad meal in pursuit of self-interest.