I recently appeared on Minnesota Public Radio’s “Daily Current” program in a segment entitled, “Everyone's a critic: Yelp reviews hold great power”, which examines the growing impact of amateur restaurant reviews posted to sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp and Chowhound.* In preparation for this interview, I gathered some thoughts about the flaws in many amateur reviews, the concerns I have with anonymous reviews, and some tips for amateurs on writing fair and useful restaurant reviews.
COMMON PROBLEMS WITH AMATEUR REVIEWS
I’m very wary of taking restaurant advice from anonymous reviewers online for the same reasons I wouldn’t trust a stranger who gave me unsolicited advice on the street. I don’t know anything about you; who knows what kind of awful food you like? But beyond this issue, which I’ll dig into more below, I often see a host of common problems in the reviews on sites like Yelp. Specifically, the reviewer:
- Bases his opinion on too small a sample or an unrepresentative one: a single visit, or brunch, a Restaurant Week meal, or on what I call the Shitshow Days – New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving Eve -- where specialty menus and/or mobs of customers don’t reflect the typical dining experience. There are good reasons why pros always put in three or four visits before formulating an opinion. You should, too, though just two visits would still be better than one.
- Is obviously making unfair judgments or poor decisions based on ignorance of the restaurant’s cuisine, level of formality, intentions, or audience. For example, he’s angry that he couldn’t order Cantonese dishes at a Sichuan restaurant, doesn’t understand why the dive bar serves poorly-made Martinis, or can’t believe the Michelin three-star place has no children's menu and won’t seat him while he’s wearing a bathing suit and flip-flops.
- Clearly has no understanding of how restaurants work. She can’t tell the difference between a service error and a kitchen error, gets angry when she hasn’t made a reservation at a peak time and has to wait for a table, or gets upset that the restaurant won’t seat her incomplete party. (Even pros can be guilty of this last one, hard as that may be to believe.)
- Has no sense of how to optimize the dining experience by speaking up to fix a problem. To do this, it helps to understand which errors can be fixed right away (e.g., the wrong order arriving, an underdone steak) and those that can’t (e.g., the dining room is too loud, there are no halal options). If you don’t bring a fixable problem to your server’s attention, they can’t fix it.
- Makes unmerited claims to authority. “I have an Italian surname; I know Italian food.” “I did Spring Break in Cancun; I know Mexican food.” “I’m a foodie; I am very particular about food.” Sorry, but none of that has any bearing on your ability to write an informed restaurant review. Dave Andelman claims to have eaten every single meal of his adult life in restaurants: have you noticed the awful crap his Phantom Gourmet TV show heartily endorses? Maybe you just stepped off the boat from China, but favored American-style fast food there, and thus are a lousy judge of actual Chinese cuisine.
- Betrays a lack of human empathy, often expressed by a condescending tone toward the staff. The reviewer doesn’t appear to have ever considered what it would be like to have strangers rating him on his annual job performance based on a single 90-minute meeting.
- Reveals an undue sense of entitlement: she appears to expect special treatment at the expense of other customers, that the restaurant should bend the rules for her because it’s her birthday, or that no demand is unreasonable because “ the customer is always right” – in general, an attitude that a restaurant is obligated to cater to her every whim.
- Has unreasonable expectations on whether the restaurant can accommodate special dietary preferences, allergies, restrictions, taboos, etc., and wrongfully assumed without calling ahead that it can and should be able to deal with every customer's gluten intolerance, veganism, aversion to onions, etc.
- Shows a lack of deep contextual knowledge of the kind that informs really useful food writing. The reviewer has no experience working in restaurants, a shallow grasp of the local restaurant scene, limited perspective on its history, a poor compass on emerging local and national culinary trends and talent, little direct experience of international cuisines from travel abroad, meager knowledge of beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails, and scant home cooking skills.
- Includes a raft of details unrelated to food, service and atmosphere under the mistaken belief that these will be of interest to strangers. I’m glad you were out with your dear Great-Aunt Margie and were wearing your favorite party dress and saw Jacoby Ellsbury at the next table and had a bunch of cocktails and were really lit by the time dinner arrived, but let’s skip all that. Only your closest friends care, and even they are probably bored with that story.
- Has an obvious agenda behind an overtly positive or negative review. The reviewer is either a shill (an investor, owner, employee, public relations agent, friend or relative of the restaurant) or an axe-grinder (an investor, owner, or employee of a competitor, an unethical PR person angry the restaurant ditched him for another firm, a disgruntled ex-employee, the owner’s jilted ex-paramour.) Ever wonder why that one reviewer only talks about Seaport restaurants, and defends even the most mediocre ones to the death? Maybe she works in marketing for a developer in the neighborhood, or is trying to boost the value of her Waterfront condo. The problem of phony online reviews is growing, and the fakers are getting better at masking their biases.
As I said, I distrust any review from a person about whom I know nothing. At a minimum, I need to feel some confidence that the reviewer and I share the same sensibilities, that we like and dislike the same kinds of places. This makes reviews on sites where reviewers remain anonymous, like Zagat (now part of Google) and OpenTable, quite useless to me. With professional reviewers and bloggers, you can glean their point of view, expertise and trustworthiness by reading their published body of work -- for starters, by looking at places you’ve both been to and seeing if you mostly agree or disagree with their opinions on them.
With a little effort, you can make similar assessments of amateurs if they review under a consistent identity, as is done on Chowhound, Yelp, and TripAdvisor. By reading a dozen or so of an individual's bylined opinions about places you know, you can begin to gauge their knowledge, contextual depth and tastes. Finding someone you trust in this manner is far more likely to yield solid recommendations than taking advice from an online stranger, which is the equivalent of meeting some random nobody whose favorite restaurant might be Old Country Buffet, or that pizza place you stopped going to after you ate there sober once.
Aggregate star ratings are utterly suspect for the same reason: you know nothing about the people behind the underlying individual ratings. There are too many opinions from strangers rolled up in there, and many of them might be the sort who thinks waiting an hour for a table at The Cheesecake Factory is totally worth it.
It’s always useful to find reviewers with special expertise in or passion for certain cuisines, like the slow-smoke barbecue nerd, the oenophile with a Master of Wine qualification, or the woman who was raised on her immigrant mother’s Taiwanese cooking. Food bloggers often fall into these categories, but I count many amateurs, especially on Boston's Chowhound board, as valuable resources on this score, too.
Anonymity and aggregate star ratings thwart your ability to grasp the point of view behind opinions. Still, skimming a couple of dozen Yelp reviews can help, as long as you understand that at best these provide an approximation of the statistical mean. If you are satisfied with mass market oriented restaurants and national casual dining chains, that perspective might be adequate. If you’re one of those food geeks who considers a merely okay meal to be an avoidable tragedy, you’ve got to dig deeper than the so-called wisdom of crowds, and seek out individual voices that share your ardor for extraordinary food. That takes some work.
TIPS ON WRITING QUALITY AMATEUR REVIEWS
As an old-media restaurant critic for the last eight years, I've long understood that the value placed on professional opinions is dwindling. Three or four years ago, Boston diners could read two dozen professional restaurant reviews in local print publications every month. Now, there’s maybe half that, and I expect that number will keep shrinking. (My own longtime employer, The Boston Phoenix, the city's leading alt-weekly for nearly fifty years, ceased publication in March, 2013.) Professional critics are dinosaurs in a tar pit; the voice and weight of amateur reviewers is ascendant.
Given that you have the chance to exercise that voice loudly and often, here are a few pro tips on how to make your amateur reviews more fair, useful, and compelling:
- Don’t review a place you’ve only been to once. I’ve published over 300 professional reviews: many places I reviewed favorably didn’t make a great first impression, and some of the harsher reviews were of places that wowed me initially. In light of how important consistency is to a restaurant’s success, accumulating a larger sample size is the only way to ensure you’re being fair and accurate.
- Get your facts straight. I once called out a Yelper for slagging a ramen place (Cambridge, MA’s Yume Wo Katare) because he clearly didn’t understand the very specific style (jiro ramen) they were serving there, and defended his opinion with one erroneous assumption after another. He had some restaurant industry connections, had traveled in Asia, had visited a passel of famous, fancy ramen joints. None of this changed the fact that his comments were as ignorant as complaining that a traditional Northern Italian restaurant didn’t serve spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs. Don’t be that idiot.
- If your restaurant experience was unsatisfactory and your server didn’t fix the fixable problems you brought to their attention, take up your unresolved issues with the manager after your meal, either directly or with a follow-up phone call or email. Give the restaurant an opportunity to make things right before you flay it online.
- Skip the outline of your credentials. The fact that you are 100% Irish (meaning your great-great-great-grandparents emigrated 160 years ago in the Famine) doesn’t mean you can tell cottage pie from shepherd’s pie. Even if you did speak fluent Gaelic, you still might be a food ignoramus with lousy taste. Let your knowledge, passion, and discernment speak for itself. You may in fact be an expert on Irish cuisine, but it's not because of your genes.
- Consider that your negative review has the power to affect people’s livelihoods, especially when the place is new. One bad review of ten that have been posted hurts far worse than one out of a hundred reviews. Professionals know to give a new place a few weeks to complete a shakedown cruise; consider giving that same benefit of the doubt to fledgling enterprises.
- Recognize that the Internet gives an illusion of anonymity that is fleeting at best. Don’t exhibit “e-balls”, the bravado that arises from the imagined distance between your browser and the object of your criticism. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say in person to the host, bartender, server, chef or owner. Assume that your pen name or alternate online identity will eventually be revealed, because it will. (Do you really think that Google, Verizon, and the NSA don’t already know who you are, Foodie1992?)
- Consider whether the restaurant’s failures are systemic or a reflection of an off night. Everyone has bad days and personal distractions to deal with. Most staffers are busting their asses to ensure you have a great meal. Last night’s fumbling server or overtired line cook may bounce back and be awesome the rest of the year, but your one-star pan based on a single anecdotal experience will persist online forever.
- Learn to cook and to serve. If you really want to deepen your appreciation of what the pros are able to do at speed and scale every night, pile up some hours in your own kitchen doing some scratch cooking: learn how to shop for fresh, seasonal produce; clean, filet and cook a fish; truss and roast a chicken; make a basic stock and vinaigrette; bake a loaf of bread; grill and roast and braise different cuts of beef; steam a lobster; cook vegetables and grains perfectly. Then try pulling off an eight-person dinner party sometime. It ain’t as easy as it looks, is it, Monsieur Ego?
- Travel, and don’t eat like a damned tourist when you do. Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations!” is one of the few food-TV shows I have any use for because he eats abroad the way I always have done: by checking out the markets, eating the street food, avoiding anything considered the “Best Local X” in mass-market guidebooks, and finding a way to get invited to a local’s house for a home-cooked meal. You will find it mind-boggling (and usefully humbling) to discover how very much you have to learn about your favorite cuisines.
- Back at home, seek out restaurants run by immigrant chef/owners whose primary audience is his or her fellow ex-pats. These places don’t dumb down the cuisine for American palates; it’s the next best thing to traveling to their homeland. If everyone in the joint but you is not speaking English, that’s a promising sign.
- Make sure you don’t have a reason to recuse yourself. Don’t be a shill or a negative shill by reviewing a place in whose success or failure you have a hidden interest.
* Other guests included Jack Yu of reputology.com, which helps businesses manage their reputations by monitoring amateur reviews, and Rick Nelson, a professional restaurant critic for the Minneapolis-St. Paul daily Star-Tribune. You can listen to the MPR segment here. I don’t show up until minute 26; the whole thing is worth listening to.