Aug 27 2008

What is a Restaurant Rating Worth?

Published by at 5:03 am under Reviews

How do you pick a new restaurant to try?  Like most wired folks, you probably go to Yelp, Citysearch, Metromix, and other online rating sites to check the place out.  Simple, right?

Not really.

While they sound good in practice, the truth is that ratings sites, as opposed to columns written by professional critics, have no real accountability or standards:

Someone who has never even visited a restaurant could praise it to the heavens or slam it.

An utterly miserable customer can manage to wind-up even the most professional staff member, and then turn around and complain of “attitude”.

A kitchen can have a bad night and the average Jane/Joe doesn’t have a food critic’s budget to visit a place more than once.

      So how can you get the most out of ratings sites’ reviews?  Here are some guidelines:

      1. Identify commonalities between you and the regular reviewers: Do you both have kids? Do you have mobility issues that require special accommodations in restaurants? Do you have food allergies? Are you vegan/vegetarian?  Do you like the same restaurants that you like? If you find a regular reviewer with your tastes and needs, chances are their reviews will be useful to you.

      2. Be cautious about restaurants with less than five ratings.

      Less than five ratings, unless they are written by raters that you trust, just isn’t a big enough pool to establish quality (or lack thereof). Heck, some professional critics need to visit a restaurant at least five times before writing a review!

      3. Learn to distinguish between a legitimate complaint and personal preferences.

      Raters, as opposed to professional critics, are mainly concerned with their own experience. Nothing is wrong with this, except you are a different person with your own desires and expectations. Some folks will rant and rave about too-small portions, but for others, the portion size may be dandy. Others will fuss if a dish is not elaborately sauced and seasoned, whilst others will praise its “simplicity”. Some folks want to get in and out of a restaurant, whilst others love to linger. These preferences can, in some cases, unfairly taint a rating.

      (Incidentally, burned food, undercooked food,  cold food (when it is supposed to be hot), unreasonable delays in service (particularly after a server has been informed of a time constraint), over seasoning/salting, and rude service are all legitimate criticisms of any restaurant.)

      4. Learn to Pick Out a Shill Rater/Hater

      If a restaurant has a lot of bad reviews, be cautious about believing a series of “perfect” reviews.  Similarly, if someone completely trashes a place that has otherwise decent reviews, chances are it is someone getting revenge and/or working for a competitor.

      5. Consistency is King

      All restaurants will have bad nights. Look for patterns in reviews: If a bunch of people complain about slow service, chances are, it is slow.

      6. Ignore the Ignorant

      Some people are just ignorant about what a restaurant or a cuisine is about, so they criticize those things that they are simply unfamiliar with. I recall reading the ratings for a truly excellent wine/cheese bar and, much to my astonishment, a number of raters actually complained that the place smelled like cheese.

      ’nuff said.

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