Checking a restaurant’s rating and skim-reading the best and worst reviews before weighing up whether to head inside has become as much a part of dining out as unfolding the napkin over your lap or tipping the waiting staff. And it’s a shift in habits that some chefs can’t stand.
Sites such as Yelp, Trip Advisor and the ratings function on Google transformed how restaurants are ranked since they first surged in popularity around a decade ago. Once upon a time, a restaurant critic could make or break a joint and smaller establishments relied on word of mouth. Now, an account of a rogue hair in a bowl of soup or a waiter’s off day is documented online for anyone in the world to see. And chefs have no way of opting out. At the same time, these sites have democratised how restaurants are viewed in a way that can be relatable and refreshing for the average diner. Sometimes you just want to know that you're not going to be ripped off and that the grub is half decent.
But Gemma*, who wants to remain unidentified, is among restaurateurs who have been stung by ratings sites. A former restaurant critic, she opened a her establishment in a small European city.
“When I opened my own place, five years after I stopped writing restaurant crits, all of those that felt in some way slighted by my writing in the pre social media age had a chance to 'hit back' using TripAdvisor,” she tells The Independent.
“Two weeks before I had even opened my doors to the public I already had twenty one-star reviews on TripAdvisor. As I went along, this did not stop, but increased. Much of the trolling actually made reference to my history as restaurant critic,” she added.
Gemma claims that when she started to get positive reviews from customers, TripAdvisor then expressed concern that she might be asking staff to write positive reviews and froze her rating at three stars.
“It was absolutely and utterly bizarre. My restaurant has six tables, yet the hundreds of reviews do not reflect this. You would think you'd be visiting a 200 seater,” she says.
“I considered suing, but TripAdvisor has a very tight legislative framework based in Canada. Who on Earth can afford that kind of fight?” she adds.
Chef Paul Wedgwood hasn’t suffered like Gemma claims she has. But he opened his Edinburgh restaurant Wedgwood in 2007 when review sites were rising in significance, and says diners have on occasion threatened him with poor ratings.
“We’ve had guests who use a negative review as a threat, demanding a free meal lest we feel the wrath of their keyboard, so I think we all have to take these reviews with a pinch of salt, chefs and diners,” he tells The Independent.
David Darmanin, the chef-owner of Pretty F*cking Good Toast (PFGT) pop-up, hasn’t got any horror stories of his own but also sees review sites as flawed because they work best for mainstream restaurants and cafes geared towards pleasing the largest range of customers. Sometimes, more niche dining experiences don’t perform so well online.
“Professional reviewers tend to do a better job in assessing the quality of such restaurants," he says. "A classic example is Restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York City, which has been voted best restaurant in the world by what is probably the most skilled panel of reviewers that's ever existed. Its placing on Tripadvisor stands at 54th best restaurant in New York.” He adds that "although the democratisation of reviews is a beautiful development per se" professional reviewers are sometimes left cringing at the comments customers who know little about food make.
"Most professional reviewers work very hard to build their food and industry knowledge, and become authorities in their field with blood, sweat and tears. TripAdvisor and Yelp offer this opportunity to any Tom, Dick and Harry. Sadly, among these Toms, Dicks and Harrys (but mostly Dicks) you get reviewers who publish negative reviews against blackmail for freebies, or worse, on behalf of competing restaurants. Although both Yelp and TripAdvisor are equipped to investigate abuse, the system is still known to be very fallible."
But the tide seems to be turning, argues Wedgwood, as customers recognise that the people leaving scathing one star reviews over minor issues can sometimes be showing themselves up more than the restaurant, and are often drowned out by reliable feedback.
“The positive feedback we received really helped bolster us in the early days, and it was a great platform to get the name out,” he says. “Now though we’re lucky enough that we have a loyal customer base and we’ve found that word of mouth is far more important. I think diners have started to realise that you can’t take reviews online at face value and review sites have started to lose their clout."
Wedgewood argues that some simple changes could improve review sites for customers and cooks alike. “If reviewers weren’t anonymous it may help with credibility. Just now there is no way to check if Traveller123 even visited the restaurant so it’s difficult respond to genuine grievances. Especially when people review an independent restaurant, you’re writing about someone’s business, their livelihood so I think there should be some amount of accountability."
Darmanin suggests that review sites would work better if customer ratings were presented alongside professionals, like Rotten Tomatoes does for films.
But as long as chefs are at the mercy of review sites, it's up to us not to be the wrong kind of Tom, Dick or Harry online.
The Independent has contacted Yelp and Google for comment. A spokesperson from TripAdvisor said: "We are confident in the system and processes we already have in place. No organisation, business or person in the world has more incentive than TripAdvisor to ensure the reliability of the content on TripAdvisor. The bottom line is, if people didn’t find the reviews helpful, they wouldn’t keep coming back to our site. The fact that millions of UK consumers do so is testament to the reliability of our review model."
*name has been changed
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