The Short Distance Between Yelping and Whining

I admit it, I wanted to cheer when I read the headline "Restaurateur Pens Epic Takedown of Entitled Yelper." I'd have been happier if he'd found a way to take down Yelp entirely, but this is a start. The gist of the story is this: a self-aggrandizing idiot posted a damning "review" of a restaurant on Yelp, not because the food quality was bad but because the highly regarded restaurant refused to package a dinner for two as take-out. The restaurant's rationale was clear: we care about presentation, and our food isn't the same from a box and we have a written policy to that effect. "I don't care about your policy," said the Yelper. To reiterate her point, the Yelper told the restaurant her husband is a lawyer, and then he jumped in and threatened them with the bad review if they didn't change their policy, a policy that was clearly posted at the entrance to the restaurant and on the restaurant's Yelp page. The Yelper posted their review and, rather than bite the bullet, the restaurant fought back by writing a carefully thought out (not to mention much more civil, much better written, and much more entertaining) rebuttal that you can see in the Eater story here.

Says Who?

 Beautiful, but would it taste as good if eaten with a plastic fork from a styrofoam box?

Beautiful, but would it taste as good if eaten with a plastic fork from a styrofoam box?

The Internet has become the great equalizer, and while it's brought accessibility to all sorts of information for many, it has also opened the floodgates to a wave of self-qualified, self-entitled claptrap. Anyone can post a review on Yelp (and numerous other similar sites). You don't have to know Sauce Béarnaise from Hellman's Mayo to rag on a chef, you can spend your whole life gorging on fast food and still pontificate about white glove service as long as you have a smartphone and you don't even have to have been to a restaurant to write an anonymous review with no accountability on a website like Yelp. Who says an individual has a valid point of view? They do. Who says they are qualified? They do. Anyone can claim to be a blogger as long as they can get an domaine name. You don't even need that much to spread the vitriol on Yelp - the cost of admission is just a bit of righteous indignation.

With a careful reading, you can often tell which reviewers are looking for attention, which reviewers are clueless (way too many in my experience), which writers have some descriptive ability and who just wants to elevate what is likely a dull and meaningless existence into 15 minutes of fame with like-minded individuals. Whew, that felt good...but I digress.

Everyone on Yelp is vouched for, their qualifications assured, by themselves and no one else. The difficulty is that if you check Yelp to see if a restaurant is any good, what you get is a star rating in large type at the top of the review and one or two, or dozens, of capsule reviews under it. It is that star rating you see first, and it is an un-curated, soulless amalgamation of all the capsule reviews below. So if we have, say, six morons like the entitled Yelper noted above who all write one-star reviews and five world travelers who all think the restaurant is the greatest they've ever tried and write descriptive, helpful reviews explaining their experience and awarding five stars, what is that big rating at the top of the review? Not even three stars.

Accountability

Over a 20-year period I was senior restaurant critic for two major market daily papers and one weekly paper. I wrote close to 2,000 reviews over this time, most of them the result of more than one visit to each restaurant (the worst ones, the restaurants to which I considered giving very low ratings were usually visited three times just to be sure). Every week, I was accountable to an editor (and usually more than one) for accuracy and verifiability, including the receipts that proved I'd actually been to the restaurant. 

Today's crop of online reviewers has no accountability. This is true of the good reviewers as well as the poor reviewers, those who write with clarity and insight and those who can barely string together six words into a sentence. This is heartbreaking to me because the lowest common denominator is sinking lower and lower. And I see a backlash coming that is nearly as bad as the problem it's trying to solve.

Leave it to the French

 Pristine or Precious? It depends on who your read

Pristine or Precious? It depends on who your read

Two weeks ago, a group of French chefs got together and petitioned the government to do something about bad reviews. This is a horrible idea that was blown out of proportion by the online community with headlines like that on the Eater website, "Thousands of French Chefs Sign Petition to Ban Negative Reviews." I've read the petition and this is not what the chefs were asking for. What they want is to have some kind of accountability, and I'm sympathetic. In May I spent a week in the South of France and found a beautiful hotel that had a vacancy. I checked the hotel on TripAdvisor, a website that has consistently high standards and a usually pretty decent quality of writing by its contributors. The hotel barely got three stars (out of five). This was a the aggregate rating of nine guests (and different from the rating system that grades the level of hotel amenities with star ratings - in Germany, for example one star means it's a tourist hotel, two stars is a standard hotel, and so on - it is not a review, it's a classification). This was a three star rating for a hotel I walked around. I reread the review, walked around and talked to some guests, and decided to stay for three thoroughly enjoyable nights. On checking out, I asked the owner why the ratings were so disparate - four five-star reviews and several one and two-star reviews. "Our competitors in town," was the reply. "Because we are new, other hotels are jealous and they had some students write reviews, people who didn't even come here to stay."

I have heard this frequently and it is this sort of practice the French chefs are up in arms about. As a consumer, I read the reviews carefully and discard those that are badly written (really, many of them are unintentional reviews of the writers' lack of education) or that deal in broad generalities, like "I didn't like the food here, it was crap." That's the total review. Do you really want that counted in your decision to go or not go?

What Makes A Good Review?

As a reviewer, I always felt I had three prime responsibilities: to accurately convey a restaurant's atmosphere so a reader could feel as if they were there with me; to be as clear as possible about what I liked and didn't like - is the food heavily salted, is pasta overcooked, does a sauce lack freshness; and to be consistent so a reader could better factor in my biases because I was always upfront about them.

So where is this going? You and I are going to continue to ask our friends if they like a particular spot, or what they did when they went to a particular town. We know our friends so we can factor in their peculiarities and preferences and translate their opinions into something useful for our dining and travel adventures. And online, we consumers have the responsibility to carefully read reviews and to discard those that don't meet our standards. For me, that is most reviews I read on Yelp - it's just not my demographic. I find most reviews in Zagat guides pretty useless because the focus there is on capturing cute soundbites and brief jabs rather than opinions of substance. The French chefs are fighting a battle they can't win, though it would be nice if Yelp were inclined (it is not) to treat the reviews the way Amazon does by noting if a reviewer is a verified purchaser of a product.

One Blogger's Pledge

I will give you more than soundbites and quick dismissals here, and yes, that means on occasion I'll probably latch on to a subject like a terrier and not let go. And yes, I am mildly disturbed by how much this sounds like elitism, so this is probably a good time to say bon appetit and good hunting - you know what you like.