Reviews in the Modern Age

Fellow Seattle-ite Rebekah Denn ponders the weaknesses of modern technology when it comes to restaurant reviewing:

New restaurants almost inevitably have kinks to work out when they first open. That’s why the guidelines for professional restaurant critics say to wait at least a few weeks before visiting. The experience diners have that first week is probably not the same one they’ll have later.

But people want to eat at new restaurants regardless in those exciting first days. A few years ago, curious food-lovers would rely on writeups on forums like eGullet and MouthfulsFood to get an early look at what was working and what was not. And now, for better or worse, those first glances are being broadcast to a larger, viral audience, able to follow the meals even as they’re happening. Like anything else involving social media, it’s a work in progress.

We’ve had these discussions before in the restaurant world, mostly about the evils of Yelp. The consensus amongst the foodies I know is that these sort of places have, at best, limited value. Questions about the experience of the reviewers, mixed in with restaurants actively courting positive reviews make such websites nothing more than a starting point when in unknown locales. In the end,when it comes to choosing a restaurant ,nothing beats listening to those you trust, whether they’re a close friend or a well established food critic.

Ironically, I’ve seen many of these same people who take this position rush to a restaurant on opening night and , as Rebekah noted , twitter first hand details of the meal. In essence they’re providing micro-reviews of a restaurant.

Well, maybe they are not “reviews” as much as first-hand accounts of their experiences. But do the readers of these tweets make that distinction?

There are two point here which I find curious. One, these technologies are not going away. As much as some of us can lament the lose of nuance and (what is best defined as) “professional courtesy”, it doesn’t change the fact that people are going to use twitter at a restaurant, and provide immediate firsthand reviews on their tweet feeds and yelp entries. It is in the restaurants best interest to manage this by what ever means available.

Secondly, those of us doing the lamenting, it is possible that we’re overselling the problem and underestimating the people. Part of me believes that most people understand that twitter streams coming from a restaurant on opening night are to be taken with a grain of salt. Most people, I believe, understand that yelp reviews are rarely in depth.

I believe the reality is that most people who actually give a damn about in-depth, highly nuanced reviews will seek out several inputs of information before choosing to go to a new restaurant, and filter that information accordingly.

But the reality is that most people don’t read food reviews, or head to eGullet, or follow food blogs. Those making their decisions solely off of review(s) on Yelp or off a twitter stream were never the market for restaurant reviewers in the first place.

The rest of us will just have to find a way to deal with that fact.