A Field Guide to Yelp's Unhappy, Unhelpful Eaters

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Restaurant and bar owners are often captivated by online reviews. Yelp's eponymous chatter on the street can seem an invaluable resource for knowing what customers think. I used to pay attention with great interest. I even contacted particularly upset reviewers at previous establishments I'd worked and offered them either a free meal or drink when we erred. I get it: restaurants and bars are loaded with miscues, mistakes, and bad behavior. We're staffed with humans doing imperfect work and, no matter how well-trained our staffs are, the human factor always peers through. So my sympathy for the customer is great.

Recently, something changed. Not my sympathy for the customer but for the reviewer. Perhaps it's the Yelper I sent a private message asking if she's actually been to my bar. By all indications they'd placed the wrong review on the wrong site. Seems innocent enough, but what if that's how a potential customer makes their decision of whether or not to go to your restaurant or bar?

People are not acquainted with the real costs of things. As famed chef Thomas Keller once said, "Didn't your mother ever tell you—you get what you pay for?"

There's also occasional incidents of Yelp terrorism. Much like a terrorist, bomb strapped to chest, this is when customers threaten to unleash their criticism online when demands are not met, regardless of the veracity of their claim. But the final straw really happened when I turned to Yelp reviews of well-regarded places that I've been. While looking through those reviews, I noticed a flock of reviews lacking rigor, ethics, and discretion. They completely missed the mark. Are these reviews what people are basing their dining decisions on?

Before one gets the wrong idea, I like Yelp and appreciate the concept. What's fair is fair. I don't mean to suggest that criticism should be brushed off. It's good for a business to listen to their customers' criticisms, but what I'm talking about is asinine comments from thoughtless people—chatter that is better left unheard.

Nevertheless, we all hear it. Sometimes it even seems vaguely believable. That's the downside of a popular, democratic media. Therefore, I've decided to add my commentary to some of the more ridiculous chatter. I've kept it anonymous to be fair, but these are real statements taken from reviews of restaurants that have otherwise been well-regarded by professional reviewers. Hopefully, this will be instructive to readers and novice posters alike.

1. The Ubermensch

The thing I loathe and despise most about DC is the "HERD MENTALITY!" Nobody can choose, decide or set their own trends. [from a 1-star review]

Firstly, the thing I loathe and despise about this review is the indiscriminate use of caps. Seriously, quotes, caps, and an exclamation point? The only thing that justifies this kind of punctuation is having a seizure. Secondly, I despise a reference to Nietzsche from someone writing for a site such as Yelp. This brief wind-up is meant to establish the reviewer's stand-alone ethics when in reality it's merely a reverse ad populum attack. It gets right at the heart of why it's so difficult to tease out Yelp's real worth, and why this reviewer is so full of it: who cares whether or not the masses love or hate a restaurant unless you actually do subscribe to a herd mentality? I'd rather hear about the experience itself.

2. The Hater's Ball

The dining experience would be awesome to try if I could actually get in! [2 stars]

How can you base a bad review on not getting in somewhere? Especially a tiny, popular restaurant? Reviews should be based on experience and not the lack thereof. Unfortunately, this is too common a scenario. Reviewers critiquing the doorman's style or imagining the hostess is judging them and, as a result, holding back that special table or bar stool. We often ascribe malicious behavior to that which jolts our sense of self-worth. Maybe you're just not that important or maybe, just maybe, the restaurant is actually full.

3. The Blood Feud

First off, I should mention that this experience was from several years ago... [1 star]

That's exactly where the review ended for me. There's something insidious about restaurants posting shining reviews from 1986 and what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Memory has a way of being rewritten. Never trust a long overdue review as it's likely a blood feud posing as actual criticism.

4. The Cheapskate

The restaurant decor is upscale and fancy. Maybe great for a date, but way too expensive for my taste. [2 stars]

The bill that was too expensive? Four courses for less than $70. Oh, and $10 for valet parking. Now I couldn't agree more that that's a lot of money for food in general, but at a four-star restaurant? This is a crap complaint but one that permeates a lot of reviews of well-respected high-end restaurants: that they're too, well, high-end. It leads me to believe that people, especially the torrent of vicious online reviewers, are not acquainted with the real costs of things. As famed chef Thomas Keller once said, "Didn't your mother ever tell you—you get what you pay for?"

5. The Know-Nothing

The pickled vegetables were too sour; they reminded me of vegetables + vinegar. [2 stars]

Wow. This barely deserves a response, as the sentence itself says everything, but this is another pet peeve of mine. If you don't know food then you ought to be a little open to the experience or at least inquisitive. There is nothing particularly insightful about a reviewer with very little knowledge or experience recounting their likes and dislikes. I don't particularly like the color magenta. Who cares?

Bonus: The FSI (Food Scene Investigator)

This place is NOT classy. It's for people who think Olive Garden is super fine and then put on some generic clothing and attempt to get dressed up for a "fine dining" experience... [2 stars]

There are those caps again. As one of my favorite web-based satirical writers once wrote: "Seven sixteenths of an inch: That's the distance you'd have to move your pinky [and turn off the caps] in order to not sound like an idiot." But I digress. This is a positively reviewed restaurant in a luxury hotel. Whether or not the decor meets this person's obvious discriminating standards (as they tell us), the emphasis is on the quality of clientele. He attempts to profile the restaurantgoers and explain where these poor sops are coming from, which, in this case, is that they wear cheap clothes and can't tell the difference between a restaurant chain and four-star dining experience. Unlikely and, ultimately, worthless to the reader.

Image: LOLren/flickr

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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