Reviews: Authentic vs Opinion

As humans we have opinions, whether we want to admit to them or not, we do. With the growth of the internet, our ability to share our thoughts and critiques is exponential. In the food world, everyone wants to share their opinion, critique or proclaim their knowledge. Sites such as Yelp, Urban Spoon and CitySearch enable us to do so. No background checks or filtering, anyone instantly has access to state their authority on subjects such as the best taco, burger, pizza or pho. Restaurants are scrutinized, sometimes accurately, more often not. Professional restaurant reviewers often spend more time than people realize, researching, writing and tasting on multiple trips to make an accurate assessment of the establishment. Opinions are formed, transcribed and produced to a general audience. Much like in psychology they are held accountable to standards. We may disagree with their assessment, however the process should be respected.

User generated review sites on the other hand operate in a completely different fashion. These sites are mostly driven through advertising with local companies. Yelp for example currently being sued for their business practices; largely considered unethical by some. Companies paying more to be featured, biased reviews and negative reviews shuffled under the table. Full disclosure, I am part of a user-generated review group for CitySearch, I am not paid for my thoughts/opinions, although we are rewarded for actively posting and generating lists/reviews.

I sporadically use Yelp/Urban Spoon for information, ideas and recommendations. I highly suggest a few caveats when using user-generated sites. Most on Yelp self-proclaim themselves to be experts. I will not take advice from someone who names Taco Time as “the real deal” or compares Palace Kitchen to Claim Jumper. The “best” is subjective. What one person considers the best burger, the other may disagree, it’s personal taste. My favorite Seattle burger, Palace Kitchen. Instead tell me/describe what you liked about the pizza, the taco or burger; why was it so “good.” Why is a place so delicious? Favorite dishes? That’s what makes a useful review. Second, keep the review succinct, readers don’t want to know your life story or why you are such an expert on ramen, OK you lived in Japan, doesn’t mean you understand quality food. A powerful review explores the multiple attributes of an establishment.

Personally I know several Yelpers, who are not professional reviewers by trade who write witty reviews in search of quality food. These individuals have discerning palates, refined taste buds and are well-traveled. Unfortunately they seem to be too few and far between, finding quality reviews is cumbersome. Alas, I find myself turning to other sources such as Twitter.

Do businesses deserve to be scrutinized? In my opinion, yes, they do. It’s the nature of the business. With respect of course, candor should be expected. Did we experience poor service on a visit? Were the eggs over-cooked? Food under-salted? If that’s an individual’s experience then it’s likely others shared similar experiences. Do we return to places because they are our friends or the owner is nice, of course, does that mean everything is perfect, no. I work near a well-known bakery in the Seattle area, that I frequent often. On more than one occasion a macaroon was rock hard or a sandwich bland. If that was my experience as a first time patron I may not return. Luckily there are many other items I love about the place, so I return, knowing what to order.

We patronize the places we love for many different reasons. When researching places to eat, I look to multiple sources: professional reviewers for published trade, user-generated review sites, friends and Twitter. I formulate my own opinion based upon the culmination of their experiences and my own. Our world is changing, information is available to us faster and in a multitude of forms. Think before you type, tweet or write. And remember if you don’t want it shared, don’t say it.

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3 responses to “Reviews: Authentic vs Opinion

  1. Great piece, Lorraine! I agree wholeheartedly – there is a lot of gray area when it comes to restaurant reviews. I really enjoy having so many options to find new restaurants, but it can be exhausting!

  2. Very interesting read – I agree that there is a lot to filter through on some of the user generated sites. Actually it is funny, because (bear with me) in art school I feel like our lessons were similar–you can’t simply say you like or don’t like something: you have to give a valid reason why. It’s OK to have an opinion…but back it up.

  3. Excellent piece, Lorraine. Very well thought out and exploratory- everyone IS a critic, but a trustworthy source? Not necessarily. I enjoy reading “expert” reviews as well as indiviual “food civilian” experiences but it takes a discerning eye to see who amongst the casual reviewers has a discerning palate. Usually, I look for key words, lots of descriptors and a balanced (e.g. “this was good for this reason, this was not good for this reason”) review with both negative and positive aspects (as you mentioned in your post) of the dining experience.

    Anyhow, way to put it out there sister, public reviewing can be a touchy thing and we all have an opinion; it takes a certain savvy to get through the mucky muck.

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