In 2007 Time Magazine’s Scott Macleod published an article claiming that the “the world’s best hamburger is in Egypt.” No; it’s not. We do have some choice burgers, especially at some of the newer places like Grizzly Diner, Trio, The Snug, Mince—and I’m keeping my eye on the soon-to-open Burger Factory. Mr Macleod found the “best burger in the world” at Lucille’s. I wouldn’t put Lucille’s burger in my top ten in Cairo, let alone the world.
So what gives? Well, to a certain extent, taste is subjective, but that’s not the issue here; it has more to do with journalism and how restaurants are rated and ranked and how those top ten lists are created.
Last week I looked at travellers’ websites and discovered one that claimed that the best restaurant in Cairo was Don Quichotte. This sent me on a wild goose chase trying to find out how the Cairo dining scene is perceived from the outside. What I learned was that no two websites or publications agree on the best food in Cairo. In fact, their top ten lists did not overlap at all. Each one had ten completely different restaurants.
Taste is subjective, sure, but as in art, literature and music there are also standards and a professional reviewer should know what they are. Most of these international best-in-Cairo lists have been compiled in one of three ways: by someone sitting at a desk in Brooklyn who has never been here and cadges his info off the internet because he has a deadline to meet; by someone who did a touristy walkthrough five years ago and is completely out-of-touch with the current scene; or by someone whose salary comes from the advertising revenues that are paid in part by the same food and beverage outlets they are reviewing.
Or in the case of Mr Macleod, someone who found a quirky angle, a heart-warming story, and a headline that was just too cute to pass up. Readers and savvy travelers need to know this though, if you are planning a trip and go online looking for restaurant recommendations, you will undoubtedly be disappointed. When you arrive at the airport you don’t trust the taxi driver standing outside the arrivals hall and you shouldn’t trust these charlatans either.
The solution to this is to go to the local sites. This too can be tricky, because they suffer from some of the same journalistic pitfalls as the international ones. So you have to approach them with some common sense scepticism, but if you do your homework you can find some true treasures. First rule of thumb, skip the commercial sites and go to the independent food blogs, Facebook pages and look on Twitter. This is where you’ll find the insider conversations about the local food scene. Second, read reviews in the local newspapers. Third, know that some local sites, even the commercial ones, are actually pretty good (like Cairo 360 and Cairo Scene).
Others? Not so much. Many hire random amateur freelancers who think that spring rolls are a seasonal dish and can’t tell their head cheese from their aspic. Worse, some of these sites rely upon civilians to do their reviewing for them. This leads to some truly bizarre suggestions.
If our hapless traveler logged on to Totally Egypt, she would be told that Sequoia is the best restaurant in Cairo based upon reviews that are years out-of-date; that Roy’s Country Kitchen is the second best restaurant in Egypt based upon the enthusiasm of a single well-meaning customer who found that the open buffet there was reasonably priced when compared to Chili’s; and that Lai Thai in the Four Seasons Giza ranks number six based upon a five-star review by a guy whose other five favourite restaurants in Cairo were also coincidently all located at the Four Seasons.
At least when Chophouse Bistro gave itself five stars, which landed it at number eleven on the Totally Egypt list, they were honest enough not to hide it.
And yet, returning to my burger theme, some of the readers’ comments can be insightful. On Dalili.com, whose motto is “local search, my way,” I couldn’t help but be impressed with lovely young man who, after visiting the food court at City Stars, wrote in to say that the best burger he had ever eaten in the world was at Burger King. The best fries too. This was useful to know and led me to click on Dalili’s best of the best list. It turns out that Egypt’s highest rated restaurant is McDonald’s (the one near the Itthad Club Wall, El Shatby, Alexandria). I’ve definitely got to check that out.