Like it or not, Yelp and other forms of 'Citizen Criticism' are having profound effects on the restaurant world. Some claim it's the end of civilization, while others applaud its egalitarian approach. Writer Alan Richman weighed in on the issue a few months back saying, "I think it's of course disastrous. It's like asking your neighbor whether or not you need penicillin for a cold." So, what do some of America's leading dining critics think? We got in touch with 18 of the nation's best to find out. Let's just say it's a love-hate relationship. On to the critics...
See also: Will Yelp and "Cit-Crit" Replace Restaurant Critics?
I kind of like Yelp. It's not a replacement for actual criticism, and I wouldn't recommend making decisions based on its reviews, but for the first time in history, it is possible to discover what Taiwanese teenagers in Hacienda Heights think of a restaurant in Hacienda Heights aimed at Taiwanese teenagers. How could that not be useful to the dialogue?
The New York Times
I have no beef with the residents of Yelpistan. I thank them for their photography, and take their opinions with Maldon sea salt.
San Francisco Chronicle
There's room for everyone. All these voices create buzz and increase interest in restaurants. While there's a lot of white noise out there, the most cogent voices will emerge.
Among the many worthy arguments concerning ethics, freebies, and anonymity, I ultimately sort through citizen criticism with the same eye I use to sort through traditional media criticism: I look for those who write strong prose and who bring a sense of trustworthiness to their critiques. Employed critics and independent bloggers alike eventually distinguish or discredit themselves with their audience, and I trust that readers can--and do--form their own conclusions.
If you employ the Russian-judge technique from the Cold War of throwing out the highest ratings (the owner) and lowest ratings (somebody the owner fired), it's possible to shake out kernels of truth from Yelp, along with flashes of poetic insight. Like this line, about the lunch counter at Nau's Enfield Drug in Austin: "I see women come in alone in an Armani suit and order a Coke float, and you know they are nursing a wound that will be healed by this childhood comfort." Not bad for free.
Yelp and similar online forums have created virtual marketplaces of ideas for food commentary, and like all open markets, there are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the ready access to comments that are unbiased and thoughtful; the disadvantage is the preponderance of insight-free rambling and the bottom-feeders who exploit their anonymity to advance personal agendas. The challenge is determining which is which. But central to the notion of an open forum is the expectation that the moderator isn't rigging the system. There have been accusations that certain businesses can buy their way to more favorable rankings, and should that prove to be true, public caning would be too good for those responsible.
The Dallas Morning News
I know people enjoy reading what their peers think of restaurants, but for me, it doesn't usually have much value. There's nothing preventing loyal employees of a restaurant from posting raves, nor does anything prevent a disgruntled former employee from posting a rant about a place. It's impossible to know when such conflicts of interest are coloring a "review." Beyond that, I don't find Joe Citizen's critical assessment of a restaurant terribly useful. There are certainly knowledge people with good palates out there posting their opinions in cyberspace, usually on the serious food sites. But the only way for them to have much use to a food-lover is to be able to get to know the commenter over time. Do you tend to agree with that particular commenter's taste? If so, that might be someone to take seriously. Otherwise, it's just a lot of noise. I suppose it might be possible to find a commenter whose opinions you tend to agree with on a site like Yelp if you had the time to cull through trillions of reviews, but most of us don't. To me, the value of a critic's opinion in any genre is based on that person's track record, training, experience, background and -- and this is very important -- integrity. The value of professional critics working in respected news organizations or magazines lies in the ethical standards and integrity that those publications uphold. Of course some publications are more ethically trustworthy than others. But for me, as long as professional restaurant critics with high ethical standards continue to exist and publish, that's whom I'll look to. If I'm visiting a city where I don't know the scene, I seek out not what Yelpers or Zagat reviewers say, but what the lead critic of the local paper or city magazine writes.
In general, I'm in favor of anything that gets more people out to more restaurants. Busy restaurants are good for my city. If citizen criticism helps fill seats, count me as a fan. That said I'm naturally skeptical of any commentary that isn't backed up by convincing, literate reasoning and a certain amount of accountability. Anonymous postings about a crappy milkshakes or off-the-cuff tweets about 'amazing' Snicker-tinis are just noise, and irritating noise at that. Only a very few self-starting critics are able to spend the time, money, and effort it takes to really explore restaurants more deeply and craft thoughtful assessments. Those that do are gold.
Eating Las Vegas
Yelp, Chowhound and their ilk, suffer all the flaws attendant to any free speech democracy: Everyone has a voice, but this is not necessarily a good thing. On the whole though, they raise awareness and promote better eating values. Giant grains of sodium chloride should be taken, however, when reading them for their restaurant "reviews."
Miami New Times
I think it was Groucho Marx who said that if 10 out of 10 people tell you you're dead, you had better lie down. If 10 out of 10 Yelpers/bloggers agree that a restaurant is good or bad, you can pretty much take it to the bank. But absent that sort of unanimity, you're just taking the word of random amateurs--maybe even crazy people!--which rarely works out well in any context.
I think they're great; the more people opining about restaurants, the better. One cautionary note, at least for me: Who are these commenters, and what is their agenda?
The Times Picayune
I don't read much restaurant criticism, citizen or otherwise, in my market because I don't want popular opinion to influence my own. I travel a lot and sometimes find Yelp useful when I do. But I still take most of my guidance from professional critics--I suppose not surprisingly, considering that I am one.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
I've begun to think of Yelp and its ilk much in the same way I used to regard Zagat--as a glorified phone book of 'survey says' sound bites - but with a more cautionary twist. Yes, there are some good opinions to be found online - but don't let all those happy face emoticons fool you. There's enough posing, pimping and dubious grousing going on in these anonymous blurbs to make anyone crave a credible source with a name. At least I hope so. Either way, their growing influence has only continued to push us old-school print critics to work harder to remain relevant.
The Arizona Republic
Yelpers are great at finding neighborhood gems and they take pride in being the first to report them, so I use Yelp as a resource. Joe Schmo's opinion doesn't mean much to me, but lumped together with everyone else's, it gives me a pretty good beat on a place.
Can't say I understand why people are fascinated to read bite-by-bite diary entries from overly chipper and chip-on-their-shoulder eaters. I've never trusted anonymous postings, with their whiff of agenda: the love bombs from friends, the hate bombs from competitors. Even the sincere don't bring much to the table. Unlike the professional reviewers or obsessive food bloggers, Yelp doesn't surprise, inspire, enlighten, educate -- or even make me salivate.
San Diego Reader
I find blogs extremely useful in uncovering new or obscure restaurants, but not all opinions are equally trustworthy. I trust Chowhound, SDFoodBlog, and Mmm-yoso!!!, but am skeptical about Yelp, with its plethora of five-star reviews (often for deeply mediocre restaurants). Yelp reputedly has a reward system for regular posters, which of course would present a mighty temptation to post about restaurants where the poster hasn't actually eaten. And all that sloppy, squealy Val-speak" (OMG!) makes me wonder if they also prefer Val-food.
First off, I don't consider sites like Yelp to be criticism in any real sense. These are sound bites, gut opinions--the foodie equivalent of deciding whether or not you want to go to see a movie by hanging out in front of the theatre and listening to the people walking out after the noon matinee. Worse, it's often like hanging out after some super hero movie or the showing of a new Star Wars flick and listening only to the crowds of fat, huffing 14-year-olds who brought their own light sabers with them--heavily invested flakes who feel like they are owed something other than a couple hours of entertainment or dinner. Criticism, traditionally, is supposed to be considered and thought out, researched, balanced, unbiased. At its best, it should be like listening to a trusted friend (or at least a respected enemy) telling you not just what he thought about this dinner he had over the weekend, but why it was good or bad or moving or made him want to punch the maitre'd. Food blogs are good. In some cases, this is the kind of quote/unquote citizen journalism that I can respect because it is a single voice--a single person--putting themselves out there, day after day and week after week, talking food simply out of love. Yelp, on the other hand, is like walking willingly into the worst kind of echo chamber, a 24-hour-a-day fan boy circle jerk where only the loudest, worst or most shrill screamers get any attention at all.
I'm all for opening up the field to citizen reviewers; worthy competition strengthens criticism. I have a number of problems with Yelp, however. First, who are these anonymous posters? And what are their credentials? (Even if you disagree with an established paid critic, you generally know his or her background and mode of operation.) There's also a rush by Yelpers to be first in the door. Recently, while I was researching a new restaurant, I came across a Yelp review posted by someone who had eaten at the place BEFORE IT OFFICIALLY OPENED, at a friends-and-family event. How reliable can that critique be?
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