The way most chefs, restaurateurs, servers, and food writers talk about it, you’d think that Yelp is a secret society more powerful than the Masons, a malevolent cabal that can render a business insolvent, a chef and his family homeless, at the click of a mouse.
In reality, Yelp is an online community where anyone can write about their experiences with a restaurant or a wide array of other businesses. In fact, I’m a “Yelper” with a single online review to my credit. (It’s about a cleaning service.)
A new study published in the Economic Journal found that restaurants in San Francisco with higher star ratings on Yelp are more likely to be full during peak dining hours than those with a lower rating. This has been widely interpreted as evidence that Yelp has a major impact on the restaurant’s bottom line. The researchers (economics professors, not culinary experts) compared restaurants that they deemed the same in terms of quality but differed by a half-star on Yelp and made inferences about the impact of the review from there. There’s an outside chance that they may be correct, but the more likely explanation is simply that the higher rated Yelp restaurants are actually better. For example: Modo Mio is probably busier than August BYOB. Is it the additional half star on Yelp that makes the difference or is Modo Mio just the better, more interesting restaurant? I’m pretty sure Modo Mio would be busier if there were no Yelp at all.
It’s true that some of what is written on Yelp is ill-informed, and certainly few contributors have the food savvy and frame of reference of the “real” reviewers, the Craig Labans and Pete Wells of the world. But most people reading Yelp reviews don’t possess this context either. I can assure you from my direct experience that what registers with a professional critic as “good” or “bad” can be wildly different from the things most diners like and want out of a restaurant dining experience.
As a user of Yelp, I appreciate the fact that these unprofessional opinions generally telegraph both the writer’s level of food expertise and whether or not the Yelper and I have similar tastes. For example, in his critique of Bibou, David C. writes the following about the restaurant’s excellent bone marrow dish: “It was rich, and had an unpleasant background flavor which I guess I must attribute to the melted marrow… it was rather organ-like in flavor.”
From this two-star review I gather mainly that David C. doesn’t care for the flavor of bone marrow. But I do. Another low-rater complains that the fish is undercooked, which I interpret to mean the fish was not overcooked like the fish most people are used to eating at other restaurants.
Overall, though, Bibou’s Yelp rating is stellar: four-and-a-half out of five stars. To date, 152 diners have weighed in on the place—the experienced diners, the foodies, the vegetarians, the picky eaters, the mean girls, and the culinarily clueless. Taken in aggregate and read with your critical thinking cap on, this diverse set of viewpoints actually adds up to a fairly accurate picture of the restaurant.
Combing through the site, it seems the vast majority of restaurants are similarly well rated, most have four or four-and-half-stars. This sameness drains the stars of their meaning. If you want to get anything out of this clearinghouse of gripes and exaggerations, you need to delve into the details of the posts and you need to use your noodle to assess the value of any single Yelper’s point of view.
Personally, I like Yelp most when I’m out of town and need to pick a restaurant on the fly. On a recent trip to Boston, Yelp led me to The Salty Pig for a quick brunch before boarding my train home. The good reviews highlight the house-made charcuterie, so that’s what I ordered and it was fantastic. The bad reviews came from people with an irrelevant axe to grind: One Yelper was angry her drunk friend was cut off; another did not like the fact that the restaurant wouldn’t serve them before their scheduled opening time. These reviews, for any thinking person, won’t factor into a decision about where to dine.
Instead of getting angry and launching their own internet slam book—it’s been reported that a section of one new restaurant’s web site will be dedicated to staff-penned screeds about paying customers—chefs and hospitality professionals should see Yelp for what it is: free data. Yelp renders those expensive “secret shopper” services irrelevant by providing hundreds of detailed reports free of charge. The ignorant and spiteful write ups actually make up a tiny fraction of what appears on the site. Most of Yelp’s reviews are measured, thoughtful, sometimes poorly articulated feedback from real paying customers who truly want to go out to eat and like it. The best restaurants in the business already do this by scouring the site and contacting dissatisfied diners to make things right, fix a problem, and win a fan for life.
This should be the de facto response, not taking cheap shots on twitter as chef Gene Giuffi is rumored to have done, apparently deriding one Yelper’s “big nose” and “crappy hair” in a tweet that appeared soon after she had the nerve to write, “I did not enjoy my meal here” in a three-star review. (She did, however, point out that her boyfriend “devoured his pulled pork sandwich,” adding that she thinks “other people will love this place.”)
In spite of this new research, I still don’t believe Yelp can be all that damaging to any one restaurant. The restaurant industry is notoriously savage and risky from a financial point of view. It’s very easy to blame Yelp, but having a chorus of voices weighing in on a place actually spreads the power around a lot, and it can prevent a single professional critic from having the clout to end a business in 1,500 words.
Yelp isn’t even the only place to read amateur restaurant reviews. I routinely check Chowhound, local blog comments, and Open Table reviews before I go out. And of course I read the established critics. As a restaurant lover, I’m constantly triangulating all this data, sorting it through the filter of my own experience and judgment, and making the not-so-life-changing decision about where to eat dinner and what to order when I get there.
It isn’t perfect, but I’m happy to have Yelp. I should post more reviews myself. It’s really not that hard to untangle the opinions of dummies and blowhards from Yelpers with great intel. There are a lot of them.