Desperately seeking perfect meal out

by Jessica Wong, CBCNews.ca

A Toronto-based food writer and restaurant critic I know once admitted to feeling dread whenever someone asked him to recommend a restaurant — something I thought odd at the time, since he seemed to be an ideal person to question about eating out.

He gave several reasons: that kitchens never function exactly the same every night, that ingredients are inevitably changing and that so many atmospheric factors — including a diner's own mood or mindset — can affect the meal consumed. He also felt terribly guilty if later told his recommended venue failed to impress.

In the past few years, I've come around to his way of thinking.

Personally, with so much information available nowadays, I find it hard enough to decide where to treat myself to a dinner out, let alone to advise friends and family.

Aside from forever clipping newspaper reviews and magazine articles for my "restos to try" folder, I spend hours upon hours on the Toronto boards of sites like Chowhound.com and Yelp.ca, where readers exchange everything from rave reviews to horror stories about all manner of restaurants around town.

Despite my neurosis about picking a perfect restaurant as often as possible, one of my favourite meals out of late was pure serendipity. Ravenous from walking around all day, my partner and I stopped at a cheesy-looking New York diner and ended up wolfing down simple cheeseburgers (albeit thick patties cooked perfectly medium) and hot french fries, washed down with icy colas, followed by a shared slab of fresh coconut cake.

My research into the venue? We glimpsed the menu posted outside and peeked in the window a) to check out how many people were eating there and b) for a not-too-close look at how clean it was.

What's your strategy for picking where to eat out? Do you stick with the tried-and-true, venture out by word of mouth or are you always up for something new?