Why do I do this?
It's not because I'm a masochist. If I were I'd exclusively patronize eardrum-shattering bars or Pizza Hut or the deli food bar at health food stores. Or any place that uses lab-made capsaicin crystal hot sauce for the shock value.
It's not because I am a Guy Fieri disciple - I only know the guy's name because when I see it emblazoned on a formerly cheap, casual dive's wall, it's usually accompanied by jacked-up menu prices and hordes of camera-toting tourists.
And it's especially not, as one recent accusation implied, that I'm a huge foodie-hipster who only thinks restaurants are cool before they're 'discovered' (though I realize my last paragraph implies that there might be a grain of truth here).
What follows is my Theory of the Dive. The Theory of the Dive is simple and (I think) intuitive:
If a restaurant is dirty, if it's small and the chairs grate, squeak, and wobble; if customers are crowded onto benches with strangers or forced to endure terrible music; if the waitstaff is rude, disinterested, or nonexistent; if there are cockroaches scurrying along the margins or the owner's baby runs around unsupervised; if the decor is neon green or 70's wood-paneled or otherwise garish; if some or all of these things are true, and the restaurant is still in business...
...there must be a damn good reason.
And that reason is usually that the food is phenomenal.
Think about it!
I don't expect everyone to be just like me and eat out solely for the food - I understand that people go out to eat for different reasons.
Some people like to feel taken care of. They cook for their family all the time and want to relax and have an experience where they are the ones waited on for a change.
Some people want to immerse themselves in some sort of crafted scene, an artistically constructed environment, and derive their pleasure from the aesthetics of their surroundings as they eat.
Some people treat dining as a social gathering and don't even notice what's going into their mouths as long as their friends are with them.
And some treat it as a stage. A see-and-be-seen catwalk of sorts.
The fact that I have different priorities than these people doesn't bother me.* I think it's obvious by the strained way I wrote those last four paragraphs that their preferences are hard for me to relate to, but their existence makes it easier for me to pinpoint a great restaurant just by looking at it.
All of the aforementioned eaters-for-other-reasons are eliminated.
All that's left is replicas of me. My food-obsessed, blinders-wearing brethren.
And if we're enough to keep the place open, it's almost guaranteed: there is something amazing hiding in there!
My favorite dives in the country (and though it should be clear by now, I emphasize that I say 'dives' with the utmost respect and affection):
Sahara Restaurant, Minneapolis. Hidden behind a fabric store, occasionally closed at prayer time, kids filing through with backpacks after school... all worth it for how well they cook their goat.
Ghareeb Nawaz, Chicago. Surly service, chaotic layout, excellent green chile chicken, 50 cent naan.
Good Mong Kok Bakery, San Francisco. Zero English from the cooks, zero lining-up prowess from the customers, best char siu bao in SF from a storefront the size of a closet.
Banh Mi My Tho, Alhambra. Half convenience store, half sandwich wizardry.
Sachi Sushi, Niwot. Shockingly good chirashi bowls in the back of a grocery store next to the dairy section.
Poke-Poke, Venice. Fresh raw fish sprinkled with all sorts of Hawaiian goodness surrounded by urine-soaked sidewalks, medical marijuana hawkers, and all-around kookiness.
*One exception to that rule is people who think it's appropriate to judge a place on the personalities of employees or fellow diners. This (perhaps irrationally) enrages me. The following are 100% real Yelp complaints posted for insanely delicious restaurants where I have had both amazing food and friendly service.
"...the restaurant is basically where fobby old asian guys who don't work go to talk shit and drink beer..." - a one-star review of Binh Dan Restaurant, home of excellent seven course goat.
(I'm sorry, how are these men eating food from their home country impacting your enjoyment of your own meal?)
"the lady could barely speak english...i hate when i go to restaurants where they can barely speak english, that's just not how you run a restaurant here." - a three-star review of Gae Sung, home of wondrous gamjatang.
(Come on, how hard is it to just point at a number on the menu?)
"food is ok, but be ready to learn about the owners political views and opinions about the world ..and they are not afraid to share it ha ha ha" - a one-star review of Zait&Zaatar, who makes the best chicken sandwich I've ever tasted.
(Oh no! Human contact!)
"I don't care that you can speak marathi, hindi, gujarati, and english. I mean congratulations that you know some many languages..but what does that have to do with my Sabudana vadas? So yeah, this place would get my 5 stars if the owner guy brought his yakkity yak down a notch." - a three-star review of Mumbai Ki Galliyon Se, whose owners constantly go out of their way to recommend the best combinations of their food.
(I have no words for this, other than I hope the guy never reads this review lest he erroneously think he needs to change his personality for this person.)