Why the Professional Restaurant Critic Will Survive the Age of Yelp

PEER REVIEW: Anthony Bourdain is wrong: The food critic is not dead

While promoting his new book in June, Anthony Bourdain told a crowd at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble that I was dead. If somehow he’s right—and plenty of people consider the chef/TV personality/professional Molotov cocktail thrower an authority because he produces the best sound bites—my cause of death was Yelp. “We’re way beyond [asking], ‘Will Yelp and sites like that determine our restaurant choices?’” Bourdain said of the hugely popular San Francisco–based user review site. “That’s already the case. The dinosaur has died. Only the brain has yet to receive the message.” As this publication’s dining critic and free-floating reptile brain, I’ll try to grunt out a retort.

You don’t know who Yelpers are. “Karen L.,” who gushes that she’s just had the “Best. Meal. Ever” at a cute little gastropub, may be the owner’s cousin. “Dennis C.,” who rips the place a new one, could be a recently fired waiter who believes he is doing the bidding of a demon possessing his charcuterie. The once-vibrant river full of “Real people. Real reviews”—as Yelp describes itself—now flows into an unnavigable sea where sulky ax grinders and anonymous shillers lurk, and it’s too late to reverse the flow.

Yelp doesn’t know who Yelpers are, either. The site’s so-called spam filter claims to separate truth from tripe, but anyone who has browsed the reviews can see that huge numbers of them sound like blatant PR. And the filter’s rejects—which Yelp publishes in the interest of transparency—include plenty that read like they came from Joe Average. To exhume precious nug­gets of unbiased insight, you’re left wading through the gushers, the haters, the incoherent, and endless excla­mation points. If this sounds like fun to you, have at it.

Even impartial people have divergent tastes. Once you’ve macheted your way down to the one-half of 1 percent who seem like reasonable, agenda-free folks, you may find that they don’t share your preferences—no matter how prolific or popular their reviews may be. And you could learn this lesson the hard way after a review convinces you to lay down $500 at Schwa, only to find that you hate Rage Against the Machine at 5,000 decibels so much you don’t care what miracle is on your plate.

The bigger Yelp gets, the less you can trust it. When the site began in 2004, it built its community organically: without ads. The day it began selling “sponsorships” to the businesses being profiled, the end was near. Allegations that Yelp’s sales team was playing favorites with advertisers and extorting nonadvertisers followed (strongly denied by Yelp), shifting the conversation to stories of peo­ple feeling used or duped.

When Zagat took off in the 1980s, the Bourdains of the era prattled about the death spiral of conventional dining criticism. Didn’t hap­pen. Some found Zag­at’s distillation of thousands of diners’ opinions into numbers to be democratizing. Others saw the ac­com­panying anodyne blurbs as meaningless collections of three-word descriptors and preferred to stick with traditional in-depth opinions—the kind that could be provided by, say, a reliable individual with a consistent viewpoint, an approachable yet authoritative voice, and more than a dozen years in the field (i.e., me).

It won’t be long before yet another website emerges to correct Yelp’s mistakes and introduce new ones. They can fight over page views. History has proved there’s room for everyone: Zagat with its safe convenience, Yelpers railing against the perceived elitism of food criticism, sluggish quad­rupeds like me—even cavemen like Bourdain.

Many scientists believe a massive asteroid crashed into Earth 65 million years ago, producing noxious material that killed the dinosaurs. In Bourdain’s world, Yelp apparently represents the mammals that ruled in the long global winter that followed. That analogy is wrong. Yelp is not the evolved mammalian species. It is the asteroid. But the dinosaurs in this metaphor, flawed as we are, will roam Earth long after Yelp is gone.

Agree or disagree? Weigh in in the comments below.

 

Illustration: Rachel Harris

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comments
4 years ago
Posted by Paul F

You are pretty much on the money, but you forgot one thing - why read professional critics? I follow the critics I do as much because I enjoy their writing as I value their opinions. Good critics are entertaining and informative, and reliable. The "entertainment" factor on Yelp is mostly the ridiculous, outrageous, and horrible things people will say. The "informative" quotient is flawed for the reasons you list.

Unfortunately, Yelp is probably here to stay, but I think professional critics will thrive too. Each appeals to a different demographic - one to intelligent individuals who value a trusted professional opinion, and another to a public forum where they can air their grievances against he world, publicize their insecurities, and generally behave without a modicum of manners.

4 years ago
Posted by bwarner

I don't necessarily agree that food critics will completely die out, but their opinions definitely hold less weight, and seem less 'make or break'.

But you say a fault of Yelp is that you don't know who the people are. Well, I don't know who you are. Not much different. Just as I can go back in the archive and see what reviews you've given places in the past, I can do the same for a Yelper. See what biases they and you may or may not have. And if this is the only review ever from a yelper, I, and most others, usually disregard it.

And let's be honest, when a review says, "Best. Meal. Ever." No one suddenly runs to the place thinking they are about to have the best meal known to man. That review is pretty much ignored for one that actually says why a place is so good.

4 years ago
Posted by SkilletDoux

Jeff... I don't like Yelp, and Bourdain is exercising his usual level of simultaneously adorable and infuriating hyperbole with his broadside, but like most tradmed reviewers, you are very, very wrong to dismiss Yelp and its ilk so lightly, as if it's a bad case of the hives that will simply pass with time.

First, you make a mistake that many traditional critics do with this piece. You treat these points as though they're news to those who use sites like Yelp. For the internet generation, navigating the morass you describe is second nature. Your reaction presupposes that internet screeds are automatically granted the same legitimacy that tradmed feels (rightly or wrongly) it provides. You give Yelp readers far too little credit. They're more savvy than that. They already know everything you've written above. There are no illusions here.

Also, Yelp is not monolithic. Do traditional reviews collectively provide a universal, objective truth? Certainly not. One can learn to trust or disregard individual Yelpers just as one can learn to trust or disregard individual magazine or newspaper reviewers. It's not hard to view a Yelpers's other reviews to get a quick picture of whether he's reasonably informed or a total yahoo. Easier, in fact, than it is with most traditional reviewers. And just as in the world of traditional media, the cream rises to the top. In this way, Yelp isn't dissimilar from traditional reviews. You're right that Cindy L. and I may not have the same tastes. You and I might not have the same tastes either. How do I determine this for myself? By reading your reviews. Same for Cindy L.

What's more, you do yourself no help by comparing Yelp to Zagat, as they're similar only in the most superficial fashion. They both attempt to harness the public at large for review purposes, but the similarities end there. You see the master star rating at the top of each Yelp page? That's Zagat. And if it were just that, we'd be in total agreement. But that's only a tiny, tiny piece of the puzzle with Yelp, which makes it silly to suggest that Yelp will be so easily shaken. It suggests -- as does the rest of your post -- that you are unable or unwilling to see the very unique and very real benefits that such sites provide.

I agree with you wholeheartedly on one point. The traditional restaurant critic is not dead... though I think the wise critics will respond to the internet era by retooling themselves more as teachers rather than stubbornly digging the trenches to defend their traditional turf. All that's in danger is the traditional *media*. It's not the same thing. What you and so many other traditional critics fail to realize is that this battle is not one of content, but of exposure and access. Good, knowledgeable food writers will always draw the most readers. The difference is that they no longer need the backing of an editorial board to make it happen.

As mentioned, I'm personally not a fan of Yelp (I frequent community food boards like LTH and Don Rockwell). It's a lightning rod for criticism because it's huge and... well... there's a lot to criticize. But to act as though Yelp is the totality of online food criticism is silly. Just because you can strike out Pujols doesn't mean the rest of the lineup can't beat you. For all its flaws -- and there are plenty -- Yelp is (unfortunately) merely the standard bearer for a larger shift in where we seek our opinions. Sites like Yelp are one stop shopping for large-scale word of mouth, with all its pimples and warts, *and* for a great many reviewers who differ from the professionals only in that they aren't getting paid for the great work they do. It's a scary thing when there are people out there willing to do your job for free (even if most writers' paychecks make it seem as though they might as well be working for free), and a defensive reaction is understandable. But while Bourdain overstates his position somewhat, the essence of what he claims is valid. The era of the traditional print media restaurant critic as king is probably over. If you can look past your (understandable) first reaction that this is a bad thing, you might understand the reasons why.

4 years ago
Posted by fitley

At the end of the day the person that does the most research before dining out has the best odds of having a good dining experience. I have friends who'll say they've been to a certain place and while I may or may not trust their opinion, if I have a minute I'll still listen. I'll listen to anybody with information pertaining to my particular destination. A careful reader can spot a ringer on a sight like Yelp. Always, always, always consider the source. There is only one person whose opinion I trusted without doubt... Julia Child. RIP Julia.

Pity the fool (restaurant critic) who thinks their word is the final word.

4 years ago
Posted by Mogadishu

Had dinner tonight at a Thai place. Its was awful. Checking various online "reviews" from random nobodies, I was amused to see that I'd just eaten in Seattle's "best ever", "never going to eat Thai anywhere else", "AWESOME!!@!" restaurant. Lesson learned? Random people don't know the difference between terrifically prepared Thai food and a luke-warm plate of overcooked crap. I'll put my faith in a pro over the masses anytime. At least they have a reputation to uphold.

4 years ago
Posted by jacktoof

I don't buy Anthony Bourdain's predictions, and I do think there is still room for professional critics and Yelp, just the way there will always be travel writers and Trip Advisor "review."

I like Yelp because it is a so much better version of the Yellow Pages and then a replacement for the friends I don't have in a city to tell me what they liked or didn't like at a particular place. I like having those specific recommendations. Yelp is much more like a social website combined with an Angie's List combined with a Yellow Pages. It has good info such as hours of operation, location and whether or not a place is BYO.

So for me, Yelp serves a useful purpose but comparing it to professional reviewers begs the apples vs. oranges analogy. For the writer here to completely de-value or diminish the opinions of the average diner or Average Joe is the pretense and arrogance I'd expect from a media person. I wonder if he would condone his travel agent having the same attitude toward his making his own travel plans online.

I agree that 1000 reviews of Hot Doug's IS unnecessary overkill, and that there are those with an agenda on Yelp, but give the reader the credit for knowing how to cull the best and most useful information from whatever source they are using.

4 years ago
Posted by jimm14

Jeff Ruby sounds like the print sports columnist in the mid 90's telling us that sports radio was just a crude fad and people didn't really care what Bob from Villa Park had to say. That same journalist is now looking for a gig as his paper is letting interns write copy while on-air ad time is being purchased with money that used to go to print.

The piece was snotty and self serving. What Jeff doesn't understand is most of us have more in common with Carol L. and her sensabilities than we do with his developed palette and smug attitude.

Get you resume together Jeff. You're already an anachronism.

4 years ago
Posted by bisbe

The choice between professional critics and Yelp is a false one. It completely ignores food bloggers who may be anonymous but you can at least get a broad view of their viewpoint and tastes in the same way as you can with a traditional food critic and judge their credibility accordingly.

4 years ago
Posted by Double R L

Jeff,

The hypocrisy of your article is interesting, are you sure it is not you that has an axe to grind and not that disgruntled waiter?

Every single one of the points you made can equally be applied to your own column. Reads don’t know who you really are. You work in publishing but specific to the restaurant industry, no?

Let’s look at point 1).
Can it not be assumed that there are certain people within this city’s restaurant community, that you have a personal relationship with, who would be more inclined to receive a favorable review even if their place is inferior to other similar establishments? Can it also not be assumed that someone who has personally offended you in the past may not receive as an objective review as they deserve?

Point 2)
I don’t know anything about the spam filter but I think it is safe to assume that the law of averages would eventually weed out individuals looking to ‘game’ the system. I do know the site isn’t designed to support people with specific agendas and if a user only posts one or two reviews it stands to reason they really aren’t wholly contributing to the site and their reviews would be suppressed or removed.

Point 3)
Are you trying to say every reader who reads your column has the same taste as you? Because that is sort of what it sounds like. Of course people have divergent tastes and no one has ever claimed otherwise. I think you missed the ‘show similar reviews’ button on your user profile on Yelp. This allows you to get an idea of how a specific individual would rate the same establishment you reviewed. The more active you are on the site the more people you find with similar tastes. In fact, it is a much more efficient and effective way to find information than your column because a reviewer on Yelp could potentially post 6+ reviews in a week that could be of interest and Chicago Magazine generally only has one per week, no? Or is it monthly?

Point 4)
Doesn’t really make sense. You do have a valid point regarding extortion but a) that has never been proven with certainty b) would become less of an issue as the popularity of the site increased not more of one. The more independent reviews you have the less effective any extortion attempts would be. Again, the law of averages would by default minimize any individual or corporate agendas.

Nice try though. Your column only came off as slightly condescending to your readers who also Yelp and at this point maybe it is only a hatchet you are grinding and not a real axe.

4 years ago
Posted by kramerica

First of all, if you spent $500 at Schwa, you're probably confused and at the wrong place. Maybe you're thinking of Alinea? Schwa has a $50 3-course and $110 9-course and it's BYOB. I spent less than $150 last time I was there and we even got two extra dishes thrown in. Further, there wasn't Rage playing at 500db but rather some good hip hop on a shitty stereo at a reasonable level. It's all part of the charm there. And while Carleson doesn't need me to defend him or his restaurant, the fact that you represented in this article that his food costs 4x as much as it does or that it was unbearable to be in there is pretty irresponsible journalism. I'd hate to see someone miss out what was, by far, the best meal of my life because of your misrepresentations.

Secondly, I know as many chefs that are annoyed with professional critics, such as with Time Out than with Yelp. Plenty of food critics like to hear themselves talk and fear that a perfect review would somehow diminish their credibility as having discerning tastes, regardless of their experience. It's ridiculous.

For anyone that cares about local food, I'd suggest LTH forum as well as chicagogluttons.com (winner of Time Out's 2010 Eat Out Award for Best Indie Restaurant Blog) for informative and often humorous reviews.

4 years ago
Posted by david

As a restaurant manager in Chicago, i have witnessed Yelp's extortion first hand. They called our restaurant and said that with our sponsorship they could make all of our bad reviews go away. When we decided not buy in to their offered opportunity, we began to watch the reviews of our restaurant on their site. positive reviews that were put up one day were either gone that day or the next one. subsequently all bad reviews, no matter how old, remained. the point to my story is this; Yelp should not be taken seriously. Its mafia like tactics are deplorable and reprehensible. It requires a lot of money to open a restaurant/bar and Yelp takes advantage of a new owners desperation to succeed because so much has been invested.

4 years ago
Posted by Yelp Extorted Me, too!

As a local business owner who's been shaken down recently by Yelp, I can only hope that you are right. We're faced with a difficult choice; either pay Yelp $300 a month to remove fake reviews, posted by Yelp staff to use as sales leads, or decline the offer and watch new fake reviews post day after day.

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