Meet the Team: John Hawkins, Technical Lead

Thursday, May 12, 2011 | 9:53 AM


Editor’s Note: We love highlighting our users here on the blog, but we thought it’d also be fun to introduce you to the people behind the Google Places magic. And, of course, find out some of their favorite places around the world.

Location: London

What do you do for Google Places?

I’m the technical lead for the London-based team of engineers developing the recommendations engine behind Google Places. It’s our job to build the tools that generate recommendations for you based on the places you and your friends have rated.

When you perform a search — e.g. “bars New York” — our engine compares the places that match this query to the places you and your friends have rated. We try to look for places that your friends liked, or places that are similar to the places you liked. The order of the results will automatically change if our system thinks places are particularly relevant for you, and it’ll also add labels (such as “Recommended because you rated The Fat Duck 5 stars” or “Larry rated it 5 stars”) to explain why these places could be great places for you to try. So the more places you and your friends rate, the better!

We’re working to make exploring and discovering new places even easier and more exciting. I love finding new places myself, so it’s incredibly gratifying that my job is to build tools that help other people do the same!

On your Places app, what are some of your saved categories?

I love exploring pubs, especially in London, but also elsewhere around the UK. Every pub has its own character — it’s a product of the people who run the place and the people who go there, but also of the building itself and the style of the interior. I think the finest examples are genuinely beautiful places — particularly the really historic ones — and there are pubs in London that date back more than 400 years. I love being immersed in history like this, and knowing that the basic experience of going for a pint with friends is the same now as it was centuries ago. It’s quite a magical feeling to sit somewhere and think your great great grandparents could have been in that same place.

If you were an emoji (our little yellow mascot), what would you look like? 

I’d have to have a pint in my hand!

What’s one city you’ve been to that you absolutely loved, and what did you do there?

A few years back I lived in Tokyo, which is a fantastic city for eating and drinking. Japanese food is an amazing cuisine, and far more rich and varied than you’d think based on Japanese restaurants outside of Japan. But even non-Japanese food in Tokyo is usually really good — the bar is just set so high by the national cuisine. I often find myself craving the little spaghetti places I used to go to in Tokyo like Menkura in Chofu or Al Dente in Shunjuku (sadly, now closed). The pasta was always perfectly cooked, al dente to an almost scientific level of precision, and with sauces that were always an interesting Japanese twist on the Italian classics.

Tokyo is a great place to drink too. I miss the taste of crisp, cold Japanese beer served in what is locally called a “jocky,” or glass tankard. It’s such a satisfying vessel to hold! The perfect time to enjoy a cold refeshing jocky or two is during the summer when the “beer gardens” are open. One of the best is on top of mount Takao-san, which has fantastic views, boasts a great atmosphere, and just getting there is a bit of an adventure. Tokyo is also probably the best city in the world for my other great love: whisky. There’s a huge following for Scotch whisky in Japan, and so many people there are quite discerning when it comes to single malts. On top of that, Japanese whisky is in its ascendancy. For instance, I’ve had some amazing malts from some of the Japanese distilleries. There are lots of really great little whisky bars in Tokyo with extremely knowledgeable staff and fantastic selections. My personal favourite is a bar called Quercus. It’s always the first place I go to whenever I’m back in Tokyo.

Name a place you have on your “Saved” list and why.

One that has been on my list for a while is The River Cafe. I’m saving it for when fresh white truffles are back in season again (hopefully, toward the end of the year).

Tell us three of your Best Evers and why.

Oliveto is a Sardininan / Italian restaurant in Belgravia in London. They specialize in pizza, and the pizza ai funghi here is probably my favorite pizza anywhere in the world (and yes, I’ve been to Italy — several times!). It has such a rich flavor to it and a fantastic texture, it’s just utterly delicious. I love the atmosphere here too. It’s always really lively and draws a fascinating cosmopolitan crowd.

The Regency Cafe is an original English “caf” from the 1940s. I go here for breakfasts on the weekend and the occasional lunch during the week. I love their bubble and squeak (referred to there simply as “bubble”).  It’s just potatoes and cabbage, but it is somehow sublime and delicious. There’s something just magical about this place that’s hard to put my finger on, and I find a visit here never fails to cheer me up (and fill me up!).

Can I cheat for my last best ever? I have so many favourite pubs in London and I couldn’t possibly chose just one!

  • Cittie of Yorke, with its impressive baronial hall of a back bar and little compartments like those in old fashioned train carriages, is the pub that started my love affair with pubs. I first saw a picture of that wonderful back bar in an old book and was determined to find it. 
  • Seven Stars. I believe this is actually the oldest pub in London, if you don’t count all the ones that have been rebuilt or haven’t been pubs throughout their lifetime. It dates back to 1602 and seems to still be in its original building. There’s been so much upheaval in the immediate area around it over the centuries, so it’s particularly special that it has stayed put and remained largely unchanged. 
  • The Nag’s Head in Belgravia. Belgravia is blessed with a number of lovely little old pubs, hidden away down cobbled mews, which were originally built for servants of the big aristocratic houses throughout the area. Like the Seven Stars, it’s a free house - meaning it is owned by the people who actually run it, rather than a chain or a brewery. This used to be the norm, but these places are becoming increasingly rare and precious in London, and they always seem to have the most unique character to them. I could spend hours staring at all the weird and wonderful bits and bobs hanging from the walls and ceilings in here - it’s like a museum.

Posted by John Hawkins, Google Places Technical Lead