Everyone's a Critic | CookingDistrict.com

Everyone's a Critic

Frank Bruni and Michael Bauer, of the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle respectively, may be the most feared restaurant critics in the business. A review from them can mean for a chef either a coronation or an execution. They are known to come like ghosts, with appearances of them spoken about like the culinary equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting. Many a host stand is adorned with clandestinely attained photographs of these illusive men. But today, thanks to the advent of websites such as Citysearch and Yelp, there are literally millions of anonymous would-be critics out there and any guest may be the next to write a scathing review.

While reviews published online may never have the credibility of one published in good old fashioned newsprint- it’s a long shot that HungryGuy99 is ever going to be considered for a Pulitzer- their sheer numbers make them impossible to ignore. Citysearch currently boasts more than 16 million users. Yelp checks in with about 3 million. One can’t help but feel you may get a more accurate idea of what a meal at, say, Daniel in NYC may be like by reading 150+ reviews from “real people” than by reading one professionally written piece in The Times. Even the notoriously exclusive French Laundry has been “yelped” more than 350 times. You no longer need a journalism degree to write a review of a restaurant, just a reservation.

How do owners deal with potentially every diner’s experience becoming a matter of public record? Some are embracing it. Many a restaurant prominently display “people love us on Yelp.com” stickers or “Best of City Search” plaques as if they were Michelin Stars.
Both sites offer “sponsored results” for businesses willing to spend part of their advertising budget to insure their establishment comes up at the top of the list of search results. Some places offer discounts to customers who mention the websites.

Others are not handling the newfound critics quite so gracefully. There have been stories of people writing negative reviews, only to be cyber-stalked, receiving harassing e-mails from disgruntled owners. Other proprietors will join these sites to contribute glowing reviews of their own place or trash their competition. Unfortunately for them, it’s fairly easy for a seasoned user to spot a bogus review.

More than a place for consumers to vent, these sites have become a social network of sorts. Yelp allows users to post photographs and fill out a brief personal profile. It also boasts “talk threads”, similar to message boards where users discuss everything from the best place to find tacos at 4am to the upcoming Presidential Elections. While there is a certain air of anonymity about them people from these sites do meet in person, often at events sponsored by the website. These gatherings are usually graciously hosted by a local business who can expect to see a sudden spike in positive feedback the next day.

Does this mean that the days of the feared food critic are over? I doubt it. But it may mean better service for the rest of us as well. After all, good word of mouth has always been the most important promotion for a restaurant. Now, with that word potentially reaching millions it matters even more.


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