Streams

Reviewing the Reviewers

Friday, January 28, 2011

In today's world of restaurant reviewing, hundreds of would-be critics share their opinions on sites like Yelp and Chowhound, and obsessive food blogs like Grub Street and Eater, and chronicle every dish in almost every restaurant. What does it mean to be a critic nowadays, and which reviews matter the most? Adam Platt, restaurant critic for New York magazine, and Raphael Brion, national editor for Eater, discuss how restaurant reviewing has changed over the past decade. They'll also take a look at reviews of Del Posto from Yelp, Zagat, the New York Times, and weigh the uses—and pitfalls—of the various outlets.

Where do you go to find the best reviews? Leave a comment!

Guests:

Raphael Brion and Adam Platt

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Comments [36]

m graham from memphis, tn

If anybody ever wonders why so many people love to hear Anthony Bourdain talk about food and the food business, all he or she needs to do is listen to these two guys. Was this show by any chance a joke? Seriously, I think those guys are the most boring people I've EVER heard on the radio. Or on tv. Or in the movies. Or in life.

Jan. 29 2011 12:31 AM
betsy from manhatten

Everyone I knew who ate at Del Posto when it opened was extremely disappointed - "extremely" because of expectations. When Sam Sifton gave it an over-the-top, 4 star review - even mentioning disappointing first years - I jumped on the band wagon eager to eat there. WOW - the 4 of us in my group (2 who'd eaten there before) found the entire meal to be a solid 3 stars (minus the $$$ priced truffle shavings - hard to lower the status of fruffles!). The meal was a disappointment - I can't remember a single dish I ate. I wanted & paid for a 4 star meal & didn't get anything close to that. I don't take anything Sam Sifton says seriously.

Jan. 28 2011 06:16 PM
betsy from manhatten

Everyone I knew who ate at Del Posto when it opened was extremely disappointed - "extremely" because of expectations. When Sam Sifton gave it an over-the-top, 4 star review - even mentioning disappointing first years - I jumped on the band wagon eager to eat there. WOW - the 4 of us in my group (2 who'd eaten there before) found the entire meal to be a solid 3 stars (minus the $$$ priced truffle shavings - hard to lower the status of fruffles!). The meal was a disappointment - I can't remember a single dish I ate. I wanted & paid for a 4 star meal & didn't get anything close to that. I don't take anything Sam Sifton says seriously.

Jan. 28 2011 05:02 PM

Yelp is mainly written by 20 somethings who have very limited context, at least in NYC. Mostly they either crow about a place just because they were there, or they totally dis it over some minor infraction, like where their table was or whether it was cold that day.

Jan. 28 2011 12:48 PM
Christopher J Michel

I use yelp pretty heavily, and I also read the reviews on NYTimes, New York Mag, and on blogs. I like some of the writing better on the professional sites, but when I'm looking for good food from a non-special-occasion restaurant, I go straight to Yelp.

Crowd-wisdom is just as useful (and useless) as so-called "professional" reviewer wisdom. This isn't rocket science, it's eating. And when a lot of people like a place (and give decent reasons why) it's a good indication -- much better, in fact, than one reviewer's opinion, even if s/he's been there three or four times.

Jan. 28 2011 12:45 PM
Arthur from Manhattan

I have had very mixed meals during restaurant week. Sometimes the meal is extraordinary like the normal meals multi-starred restaurants serve - and then I think they are doing a good job of enticing patrons to continue to come. But other times, the meals have been not good at all. Do restaurants sometimes serve meals of an inferior quality because the price is less?

Jan. 28 2011 12:44 PM

These guys should be on the stuttering segment

Jan. 28 2011 12:43 PM
Mark from Manhattan Chinatown

One problem with Yelp is that too many users are striving for posts that get tagged as "funny" or "cool." They could improve the site dramatically by adding buttons to label posts as "unfunny" or "uncool."

Jan. 28 2011 12:43 PM
Nick from Lost in NJ

I find Zagat to be a reliable and valuable source (for me) since it's edited quite well by the publisher. I find the reviews on sites like Yelp or Chowhound are often less valuable because of the "signal to noise" ratio. For example, you get someone who admits he or she doesn't like a particular type of food and then goes on to either pan or praise a place without any sense of irony. How do you use that one? I really can't trust their "review" because of their obvious lack of food experience.

I remember back when I sold wine at a high end wine shop, my manager made sure we were all educated on all aspects of what we sold. I remember we were all expected to attend a wine and spirits class (4 hours per week for over 6 months) so that we learned what a particular wine tasted like. Most important, we learned that there were a lot of wines that were proper examples of a varietal that you may just may not like. But you did learn what it tasted like and could speak about it with intelligence to a potential customer. As a result, I had my "followers" who would buy on my personal recommendations because my tastes closely matched theirs.

Jan. 28 2011 12:42 PM

Please Mr. Staccato--SPIT IT OUT!

And you are really boring...

Jan. 28 2011 12:40 PM
Harry Hawk from Vieques

When Fatty Cue came up and portion size was mentioned it would have been more fair to put some context there; that they are using local animals from small farms, etc. These very expensive cut and they nicely fatty..

Jan. 28 2011 12:38 PM
Daniel

I hear too many "experts" mispronouncing foreign dishes on TV and preparing bad americanized dishes. I no longer trust food "experts."

Plus journalists (food reviewers being such) are _paid_ to feign expertise after a couple of days' research.

Jan. 28 2011 12:37 PM
Richard from Brooklyn

I only listen to one person and that's Arthur Schwartz.

Jan. 28 2011 12:37 PM
Mitch from Manhattan

Thanks, Leonard - we had EXACTLY the same experience at Fatty Crab, Sam Sifton's favorite.

Jan. 28 2011 12:34 PM
dave from manhattan

i've been in the biz for 30 years. front of house. 3 stars to jazz bars. the blogs help and hurt alternately,but i find that "eater" in particular, relishes in the demise of restaurants. almost giddy in their "death watch" with no regard to the plight of busboys, cooks, dishwashers losing their jobs. not to mention the hit to the community when a business closes.
really gets my goat.

Jan. 28 2011 12:33 PM
Kate from Manhattan

Its too bad that Zagats is so backwards about this. They could create a very profitable and far reaching content site and brand if they made their site free. Its too cumbersome to have to pay for their reviews on line as well as in book form.

Jan. 28 2011 12:33 PM
Nancy Duggan from Morristown, NJ

I don't understand why Mr. Lopate cut off Mr. Huang. At first he talked over Huang to get in the Sifton metaphor crack, then seemed to simply hang up on the poor guy.

Jan. 28 2011 12:32 PM
Carlos Rey from 10011

Zagat.ComZagat.ComZagat.comZagat.Com...

Jan. 28 2011 12:31 PM
Bernard from Bronx

I wonder about the background of any reviewer. For example, could an American reviewer do justice to a West Indian dish such as Calaloo or serious Jerk pork?

Jan. 28 2011 12:31 PM
Cesar from Manhattan

For restaurant reviews, recipes and more, I enjoy the writing at GoodFoodStories.com. I've gotten more than a few great tips from that site.

Happy dining!

Jan. 28 2011 12:31 PM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Three things bother me about the online reviews:

1. That so many of the reviewers are barely literate and their reviews are difficult to understand because of their poor use of the language.

2. That sometimes reviews vary wildly. Some people will say that a restaurant is wonderful and then a couple of others will tell horror stories about the same restaurant; the horror stories may be true, but you wonder how accurate the reviews in general are.

3. Most people don't know what to look for in a restaurant. I consider four areas: food, service, ambience & price. Many reviews cover only one of these, and it may not be a deciding factor for other potential customers. In addition, many people really don't know food well, so while they may enjoy a particular dish, they wouldn't know whether it had been prepared properly, with quality ingredients. Having worked in the restaurant industry for a number of years, I can tell you stories of customers who had no idea what they were really eating.

Jan. 28 2011 12:31 PM
Peter from New York, NY

I use Yelp a lot in deciding where to go out to eat, but as a scientifically trained individual I only trust star ratings when there are a large number of reviews ("sample size"), and I generally discard outliers. Also, you have to learn how to read between the lines to evaluate the credibility of reviewer. E.g. one review I read recently criticized a restaurant because the owner supposedly treated him poorly, but then the reviewer also complained that he saw a celebrity in the restaurant and complained that he would not take a picture with him. The reviewer's ability to evaluate service (and whatever else might be important about a restaurant) thereby immediately went down in my estimation. Therefore, I think the crowd sites are useful if used just to get a gestalt, but you have to take into account that some people who write in are crazy.

Jan. 28 2011 12:31 PM
Mitch Coodley from Manhattan

All paid reviewers have similar blind spots: They ignore the obvious about trendy restaurants: 1) Noise levels are unacceptable 2) By-the-glass wine prices are usurious 3) "Salad" prices are usurious 4) When a "funky" restaurant charges $16 for a salad and $28 for an entree, the service, ambiance, comfort and prices are simply seen as the price to pay for such "unique" food. At least chowhound and yelp are honest - even when biased; you read enough and you'll see the real flaws in a restaurant. By the way, Sam Sifton is the absolute worst.

Jan. 28 2011 12:30 PM
Emily from Brooklyn

Let Eddie Huang talk! He's much more interesting than Nina Zagat! I really wanted to heat what he was about to say about Yelp.

Jan. 28 2011 12:29 PM
Karen

Which foods don't your reviewers like? I don't care for eggplant, fennel, or raw shellfish for example. Could I still be a restaurant critic?

Jan. 28 2011 12:26 PM
CB from Brooklyn

I tend to take things like Yelp reviews with a huge grain of salt. I've read many anonymous online negative reviews of restaurants that I'm familiar with, and the reviewers describe services that are not only worse than what I experienced at that restaurant, but worse than ANY dining experience I've ever had anywhere! It makes me question the reviewer more than the restaurant.

Jan. 28 2011 12:26 PM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

While I understand your guests' displeasure with Yelp (it's infringing upon their voice and stature as critics), I find Yelp to be extremely helpful if I'm in a pinch in a neighborhood or city I'm unfamiliar with.

During a trip to California, I used the Yelp to find a great, affordable hotel in Santa Barbara, as well as restaurants to eat at. In Paris, I used Yelp to find one of the city's only Mexican restaurants, and was not disappointed. I feel that the "voice of the people" aspect of Yelp - especially when there are over 20 reviews per establishment - can give you a realistic portrayal of what kind of experience you can expect to have as a regular person.

Jan. 28 2011 12:25 PM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

While I understand your guests' displeasure with Yelp (it's infringing upon their voice and stature as critics), I find Yelp to be extremely helpful if I'm in a pinch in a neighborhood or city I'm unfamiliar with.

During a trip to California, I used the Yelp to find a great, affordable hotel in Santa Barbara, as well as restaurants to eat at. In Paris, I used Yelp to find one of the city's only Mexican restaurants, and was not disappointed. I feel that the "voice of the people" aspect of Yelp - especially when there are over 20 reviews per establishment - can give you a realistic portrayal of what kind of experience you can expect to have as a regular person.

Jan. 28 2011 12:24 PM
DK in BK

The guest from NY Magazine is really difficult to listen to. Spit it out already! Halting, and stammering all the way. Maybe he should have been a guest for the stuttering segment.

Jan. 28 2011 12:24 PM
Liam from New Jersey (currently Charlottesville, VA)

I'm currently a first-year at the University of Virginia and I find myself constantly relying on sites like Yelp and iPhone apps such as Urbanspoon that are useful in almost any small city with a decent dining scene. When I'm home or in the City, Grub Street tends to be my go-to source for restaurant reviews. In my experience, they've had at least an insightful blurb for every place I've ever searched for, no matter how far off the beaten path. I've also really grown to love Ozersky.TV, a sleek, snarky, video-based site run by Time magazine's polarizing food writer Josh Ozersky. Josh puts together some really excellent short pieces that are refreshingly focused on individual dishes and the chefs that create them (my personal favorite: http://ozersky.tv/2010/06/daniel-boulud-skybox/). But at the end of the day, no one is better than Sam Sifton (except, perhaps, his predecessor Frank Bruni). He's like F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig with a twist of 1950s Brooklyn grit.

Jan. 28 2011 12:24 PM
Lothar Brieger from Manhattan

I feel for Leonard in this interview. Getting answers from these two is like pulling teeth.

Jan. 28 2011 12:20 PM
Amy from Manhattan

It seems to me that "leveling the playing field" is what restaurant reviewers are doing by going to restaurants anonymously, so they'll have the same experience other diners do instead of getting special attention. Publishing their photos makes it harder for them to do their jobs & give their readers an idea of what a meal at the restaurant will be like for them (the readers) instead of for someone the owners will make more of an effort to impress.

Jan. 28 2011 12:19 PM
Adrienne

In 1999 I did an externship at Montrachet, Ruth Reichl was immediately recognised despite Carol Channing wig and glasses. The chef sent her a special amues buche and also sent it to all the dinners near her so she wouldn't guess. The whole kitchen focused on her meal and the floor gave her special service. Montrachet got a great review.

Jan. 28 2011 12:19 PM
Ash in Chelsea

Leonard,
The significance of the fact that some -- or maybe many -- restaurant reviewers write reviews after only one visit never occurred to me until I heard your remarks. Then, I thought: Isn't one review by ten different reviewers visiting a restaurant nearly the equivalent of one reviewer visiting a restaurant ten different times?

Jan. 28 2011 12:19 PM
Sarah from Ridgewood

At the very least these helpful sites review restaurants/services in my area of Ridgewood, Queens. Things like Zagat and the newspaper seems really class-specific.

Jan. 28 2011 12:18 PM
Anthony from Maplewood, NJ

With so many restaurant reviews available, it takes a long time to figure out where to eat when looking for a recommendation. Crowd-sourced sites like Yelp can be random and unreliable. It takes some time to learn who on Chowhound shares one's tastes. High profile restaurant reviewers can still be influential.

Across the Hudson, where Zagat coverage is spotty and there are no Sam Siftons, yet, I launched a website last year - EthnicNJ.com - devoted to sifting through all of it and putting the best (my opinion) ethnic restaurants in one place on one map, with links to the reviews of others.

Nice response so far. The site seems to meet a need for Jersey's ethnic food foodies.

Jan. 28 2011 11:11 AM

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