Beli co-founder Eliot Frost’s newsfeed on the Beli app. Courtesy of Judy Thelen.

The first thing most people do when they want to try a new restaurant for dinner is Google, “best restaurants Long Beach.”

But there’s a problem with that method: How can you trust that those restaurants would actually cater to your specific tastes?

Judy Thelen and Eliot Frost were questioning just that when they started dating.

“Too often we were going to places with good critic reviews or high ratings and ending up disappointed,” Frost said.

They documented all the restaurants they would go to on dates on complicated spreadsheets, a process that eventually led to a marriage—and the creation of Beli, an app that centralizes restaurant tracking.

The app launched in 2021, and it’s now approaching 10 million restaurant ratings. In Long Beach, the top five highest rated restaurants are: Nick’s on 2nd, Manaow Thai, Little Coyote, La Parolaccia Osteria, and Ammatoli. The most bookmarked restaurant in Long Beach by users is Phnom Penh Noodle Shack.

But unlike Yelp or Google, anyone who uses the app would never see that list. Instead, the recommendations are all personalized based on your own past experiences at other restaurants.

When the couple began searching for more reliable recommendations and a place to track their restaurant adventures, they saw an opportunity to fill a need that internet searches had yet to satisfy. They found that lots of people were like them, keeping lists of the restaurants they go to, but not necessarily leaving public comments on crowd-sourced review websites like Yelp.

To help better cater to any given person’s specific tastes, Beli doesn’t rely on a star-rating system. Instead, the app uses a comparative question—did you like this restaurant more than that restaurant—to assign a restaurant score, which forms a personalized stacked ranking list.

Essentially, it’s a game. And the app leans into the social media element by creating a leaderboard for restaurant rankers that even Thelen and Frost were surprised people took so seriously. The key to the app lies in the comparative question, which forces the user think critically about the dining experience—for foodies, it’s addicting. It also allows a user to be surprised by their own choices and the way their list comes together.

Full disclosure: I was a user of the app before I began reporting this story. And no matter how many wonderful, critically acclaimed restaurants I go to, a hot pot chain restaurant has yet to be superseded for my top spot.

“Taste is subjective,” Thelen said. “Beli puts all the opinions that matter into one place.”

Users can also indicate which restaurants they want to try, and with enough data (at least 15 ranked restaurants), the app can then begin to suggest personalized recommendations.

Beli looks for users from all over with similar taste for those recommendations—not just people nearby or a friend’s ranking (although those help). Restaurants are then assigned a score for the user to see, which tells the user how much Beli thinks they will like a place.

“It’s both a utility and social app,” Thelen said. “Dining out in itself is social.”

The app is meant to help users from the beginning to the end of their restaurant journey—from hearing about a restaurant to then documenting the experience, Frost said.

“We don’t work with restaurants,” Thelen said. “Our main goal is to match the perfect pair (of user to restaurant).”

Beli app co-founders Judy Thelen and Eliot Frost. Courtesy of Judy Thelen.

The only people who can see someone’s ratings are a users’ followers, a decision that was very intentional to avoid the type of public shaming that can appear on review websites, Frost said.

If a user and someone they follow both bookmark the same restaurant to try, the app will suggest they get together for a meal.

While anyone can download the app, the experience is technically invite-only—a decision intended to foster the social element of the app. Users who download it without getting an invite will automatically be “invited” by Thelen after they sign up. But the ideal way for people to learn about and access the app is still through an invitation from someone they know—it allows users to build their community, and their recommendations, based on the people they trust most.

“The number one trusted recommendations are from your friends,” Thelen said. “That’s not going to go away, even with A.I.”

The app still has more to do, the couple said. They hope to add dish recommendations at a restaurant, answer most questions that come up in the restaurant journey (like making a reservation) and expand beyond just restaurants to other types of food establishments. The app already has lists ranging from Michelin restaurants to coffee shops—ice cream shops are next to be added.