I was expecting after reaching out to OpenTable yesterday about their list of the nation's 100 Hottest Restaurants to find out that perhaps someone in another city's OpenTable offices, or even someone from an outside PR firm, had done the data sorting work responsible for naming only one sole San Francisco spot to the list, Asia SF. But no! The official word from the San Francisco-based company's head of corporate communications is that this really was solely based on diner feedback and user-generated reviews, and as the data would have it, Asia SF is simply the hottest ticket in town, on par with Michelin-starred, celebrity chef-owned, critically acclaimed restaurants in all the other major US cities.
While I don't begrudge any fans of the restaurant/club and its now cable-TV-famous trans performers/servers their right to vote this place to the top of an OpenTable list indeed, OpenTable's communications director Tiffany Fox says it's "fun, vibrant, sexy and a great place to celebrate and it’s... still hot in the minds of diners" after two decades I got curious what other restaurants might have come close in the Hot Spot category, which is apparently user-assigned in the OpenTable universe.
As it turns out, Asia SF actually ranks in the number-two spot on their top 10 hot spots in San Francisco, and the list is, to be fair, all over the place in terms of food quality though there are a couple of notable heavy hitters that would have made more sense on a national list of trendy hot spots. Why didn't they make the cut?
In the number-one spot is Union Square tourist trap Biscuits & Blues, which gets an overall rating of 4.3 out of 1258 reviews, though one of its recent four-star reviews goes like this, "Took my husband to the dinner show for his birthday... The food was good and even though it wasn't outstanding, we weren't expecting it to be. We were there for the total experience."
Right, and so, setting aside the exploitative and semi-offensive-in-2016 nature of Asia SF, where birthday- and bachelorette-party-goers pack in and pay for prix-fixes and over-sweet cocktails in order to gawk in wonder at how well the lip-synching trans ladies pass for cis women, diners are going there for an overall good time. Dinner and a show, with the food not being the main draw. Per one recent review, "We came to celebrate my birthday and the attention was wonderful. I took a shot from a lovely woman's breasts and that was a pretty big highlight to my night (not to mention my boyfriend's)."
Now, Asia SF enjoys a slightly higher overall rating than Biscuits & Blues 4.4 vs. 4.3, out of a possible 5 which might explain why it landed on the national list instead, if it weren't for one problem: There are several much more highly regarded "hot spots" on their Top 10 Hot Spots that have the same or even higher ratings. For instance, there's Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant in the country for 2015, AL's Place, which also has an overall 4.4, and 4.5 for its food, and comes in at number three on the list. There's Trestle, also a big hit in 2015 for its value especially, which has an overall rating for 4.6, and comes in at number four. There's perennial favorite and hard-to-get reservation Nopa, which lands at the number eight spot on the list and has a 4.7 rating overall. Also on the list: Tosca Cafe, run by celebrity chef April Bloomfield and certainly a see-and-be-seen spot by San Francisco standards even two and a half years after it opened, which gets a 4.2, and ranks one slot higher as a Hot Spot than Nopa.
So clearly the ranking isn't tied to the overall rating but according to OpenTable, they didn't "editorialize" at all in the creation of the Top 100. It was based solely on user ratings, and not necessarily on the number of reviews either.
According to Fox, "It is interesting that Southern California, and West Hollywood in particular, is heavily represented, but this isn’t totally surprising as the hot spot list tends to be driven by diners’ perspective on restaurants to 'see and be seen,' and with an eye toward those that are great places to celebrate birthdays and other occasions that lend themselves to a party atmosphere." And, "In addition to LA, New York, Vegas, and Miami have always had a solid number on this list too, but again they tend to be perceived as being hot spots in terms of celeb sightings and vibrant, sexy bar scenes with music and beautiful people to match."
But wait: Does anyone actually go to Asia SF to "see and be seen," or to see celebrities?
Celebrity sightings in SF happen at places like Quince, or Tosca, or Nopa where Prince stopped in to dine when he was here a few weeks back.
I've reached out to OpenTable again to clarify their methodology, because something doesn't seem right here! If only the number-two restaurant among SF's hot spots, according to OpenTable users, makes the cut, and 17 hot spots in LA are deemed more worthy, is this really solely based on reviews, ratings, and user feedback about celeb sightings and party atmospheres?
Say that I'm splitting hairs or getting unnecessarily worked up about some dumb list (probably) based on unreliable user-generated data points, and I won't say that you're wrong. But given that OpenTable is a corporation a San Francisco-based one no less that is in the business of promoting its client restaurants and collecting fees from them in return for their reservation software, is there not something else at work here? What does Asia SF do for OpenTable's bottom line that AL's Place and Tosca do not? Just asking.
Update: Fox has replied that "OpenTable's local and national lists are purely based on user generated reviews data and are not nor have they ever been pay for placement lists."