The Check Please Effect

money on table

Last Friday, five friends and I headed over to Kedzie Street, on Chicago’s North Side, looking for Middle Eastern food. The area is the center of the city’s Middle Eastern scene, so there were plenty of options. But when we reached the strip’s first restaurant, Noon O Kabab, we just kept walking—we could see from the outside that it was packed. Same deal at the next place, Semiramis, but we put our name on the list anyway. In the meantime, I decided to venture down the street to Al Khayameih.

It was practically empty.

Why? It’s called the Check Please Effect.

Check, Please! first aired on WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, seven years ago. Three “regular” Chicagoans come on the show each week, and each of them reviews three restaurants. It’s not a revolutionary concept, but the show has earned a huge following and has had an even bigger influence on the local dining scene. After being featured on Check, Please! restaurants not only get the expected post-review crowds—they sustain them. Since it was featured on Check, Please! five years ago, the Sweet Maple Café, a cute, soulful brunch spot in Little Italy, has been packed. To deal with the crowds, Think Café in Bucktown had to tack on an addition to their building—twice.

For Chicagoans (and maybe for San Franciscans, who have been watching a version of the show on KQED since 2004), the Check Please Effect is an old story. But until I was sitting in Al Khayameih, happily noshing on pita chips and toum, I had never thought about the flip side of the effect. Apparently, the Check, Please! audience is so enamored of the guests’ choices that they’d rather wait for an hour than take a chance on an equally good restaurant right down the street. The show clearly helps some restaurants, but hampers others.

I was furious. Kind of. I was furious intellectually. But I remained calm and collected and happy on the outside. I hated the idea that Al Khayameih wasn’t getting the kind of customers it truly deserved—that people could be so mindless as to fear straying from what a television show recommended. But on the other hand, had Al Khayameih been as popular as the restaurants down the street, I’d still be waiting for a table.

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