Last Friday, in Boston, USA, Michael Scelfo did what many restaurant owners have probably longed to do for ages. He took two bombastic customers and hoisted them by their own social-media-shaped petard.
What happened was this: two women came into his restaurant, Alden & Harlow on Harvard Square. They sat down without a reservation, refused to leave and started indulging in some argy-bargy with his staff – all the while threatening to leave bad reviews on Yelp if their fancies were not properly attended to.
So, he did what any modern-day gallant would do – he took up his phone, snapped their picture and put it on Instagram with an excoriating caption, which ended with #wedontnegotiatewithyelpers. The comments, largely supportive, poured in. Nemesis had followed hubris and the women were probably left a tad embarrassed.
As much as this story is about the rudeness of a pair of plonkers, it is also about the face-palming direness of crowd-sourced review sites such as Yelp – not just a sound made by terriers, but a living breathing website – and its better-known cousin TripAdvisor.
In theory, these sites democratise the process of restaurant criticism – a good thing. But in fact, they debase it. Anyone with a smartphone and a gripe can go to town on a restaurant. Of course, no one would quibble with fair criticism – and Yelp and TripAdvisor encourage people to be fair – but quite often the reviews seem to have been done by the same bloke who did the fire-and-brimstone bits in the Old Testament. After all, is not bile and fire more interesting to write, especially if you won't feel the consequences?
After Scelfo posted his by-now widely seen Instagram, a friendly Yelper in LA immediately gave him five stars, solely because, as he said: "It's time restaurants stop fearing all these bad Yelp reviews by entitled asshole customers who just want free shit."
Meanwhile, a woman in Whittier, California, took exception, saying Scelfo was "trashing on" the customers, adding that he had "gone as far as posting a photo of two paying customers on Instagram JUST to degrade them". (Try reading that in the voice of an angry cleric – it is a lovely experience.) It is a seesaw of bollocks – and only further explains why crowd-sourcing your reviews is the most tricky of businesses.
I never, ever read Yelp reviews, nor TripAdvisor's. Why? Because I don't want to trust a stranger with my dinner plans. I would much prefer to take a pal's recommendation. Or be terribly old-fashioned and, you know, read a newspaper or magazine review, in print or online. It is not that I think John Walsh, Tracey Macleod or AA Gill have access to some higher truth unseen by Mr Hank Marvin of Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It is simply that when you read a trusted reviewer's words regularly, you build a relationship with them. You understand their peccadilloes and pre-occupations and moderate their opinions, as seen on the page or screen, with the yardstick of your understanding of them personally. This may not give access to that elusive higher truth, but perhaps it gives a view of a less murky one.
For more food and drink reviews, follow Samuel Muston on Instagram @smustonReuse content