“People hate us on Yelp”: For some restaurants, this phrase has become a badge of honor, one proudly displayed in sticker form on their front doors. Botto Bistro, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, made national news in 2014 when it took the sentiment a step further by offering diners a discount for writing one-star reviews, the snarkier the better.
Businesses and customers alike play all sorts of games with user-generated review sites like Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, and Google—and most of those games aren’t as charming and transparent as Botto Bistro’s one-star campaign.
Earlier this year, NBC News not only identified hundreds of fake reviews for everything from books to building contractors. It also managed to create a completely fake gardening business that, with a budget of $168, garnered 600 positive reviews in the space of 24 hours, all without lifting a shovel.
“We want to be the broadest and deepest content source for local information, really, the Amazon of local,” Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman told reporters when the company went public in 2012. In light of the widespread skepticism of Amazon reviews, and seller frustration on Amazon Marketplace, this statement feels inadvertently prescient. Between the fake reviews, the gamification, and power users who sometimes ridicule and threaten critics, it can seem like review sites are totally useless.
But user-generated review sites still contain an incredible amount of information, especially if you know how to read between the lines.
Whether you’re traveling to a small city or town that doesn’t have an alternative weekly newspaper to consult for recommendations—my favorite way to search out a morning coffee or evening nightcap in new places—or just end up in a spot you don’t know well with a growling stomach, here’s how cut through the noise and find the real gems.
Photos don’t lie
Even the biggest review site skeptics I spoke with for this article said they consulted the many photos on Yelp as a reference point. “The restaurant’s website and Instagram are typically super stylized, but a Yelp photo doesn’t lie,” Julia Kramer, deputy editor at Bon Appétit, wrote to Quartz in an email. Kramer takes a largely skeptical view toward Yelp reviews, but, especially when traveling uses it as a directory service. “I look at the photos, but I don’t actually read the reviews on it. I’m interested in Yelp as an incredibly thorough user-generated listings database, not as a restaurant-recommendation site.”
Rachel Wharton, a prolific food writer whose history of American food will publish later this year (and who is a friend of mine), used to write a regular column for the New York Daily News about places to eat along each stop of the New York City subway system. She told me that she scoured Yelp to help her research the column, and that she still uses it when she travels.
“Places that have a lot of reviews and a lot of photos, it’s almost like going there, you can see like almost every single dish…you can actually look at the menu and see what’s on it,” she told me in a phone call.
Look for specifics, not stars
Whenever you’re reading reviews on a site like Yelp, forget the stars and read the reviews. Wharton told me that she’s always on the hunt for something unique about a place, and that she’ll often get a whiff of something delicious from a throwaway line in an otherwise unremarkable review. An example:”One time I was looking at pizzerias and someone talked about the green bean sandwich—and I was like, that’s gotta be Chilean, I’m checking that place out,” she said, referencing the chacarero, a steak and green bean sandwich popular in Chile.
“If you have the time to sit there and read the reviews, you get all this information about what a place actually is.”
Know what you’re looking for
Not every restaurant is good for every group of diners. The one-star Yelp review inspired by a toddler’s disdain for the spicy curly fries or a vegetarian’s disappointment that there was nothing meat-free at a barbecue joint has become a sort of shorthand for the ridiculous drawbacks of use-generated reviews. If you’re a parent or a vegan though, these are useful bits of information.
“Most of the Yelp reviews are wrong. They just are,” David Chang, the celebrity chef and host of the Netflix series, Ugly Delicious, told FiveThirtyEight, noting that he considers the site useful mostly for verifying the address of a restaurant. “For the most part, no chef is going to take a Yelper’s review seriously, even though they might read them.”
Certainly Chang doesn’t need to take anyone’s advice on how he might improve his famous pork buns. A restaurant with less of a media presence, though, has an opportunity to learn from user-generated reviews. It can add a grilled cheese sandwich to its kids menu, put a line on its menu about how to book a party room for large group, or just understand its own identity better. While not all restaurants are good for small children or for a 12-person birthday celebration, restaurants can use reviews to identify fixable weaknesses.
A good review, whether professionally written or crowd-sourced, helps provide context, says Chris Stang, CEO of The Infatuation which also owns Zagat. “What is this restaurant good for? Like what situation is it good for?” he said, describing what a review should accomplish. “It’s not enough to just say this restaurant has great food, right? You have to understand the context of, is it going to be great for a date? Is it going to be a place I can bring kids? Is it going to be a special occasion restaurant with candles and white tablecloths?”
Yes, it’s annoying, especially to chefs, to read a scathing review of a restaurant based solely on the fact that it couldn’t accommodate a party of 10 without reservations on a Friday night. That information though, for a reasonable reader, is useful—it indicates that it’s a busy, popular place, that values the experience of customers who planned ahead, and might be worth checking out—after making a reservation.
Look at everything
Wharton says that when she’s traveling, or she’s in a neighborhood she’s not familiar with, she doesn’t search review sites by restaurant. Instead she uses the function that will show every reviewed business in the area. Then she reads what people have to say, with an eye for the interesting. “If I see a gas station or a bodega and people are talking about the tacos, I think, oh, what’s going on there?”
Remember to enjoy the experience
There’s an extent to which social media has destroyed some of the fun of eating out. Whether your dining companions are more interested in perfectly composed food photography than in you, or are insisting that everyone order a different entree, rather than what they want, so that they can write a more thorough review, it can feel like the meal is meant more for online eyes, than for the moment. Jenn de la Vega, a food writer and chef who owns the catering company Randwiches, says that she cringes when friends can’t be present for the actual meal because they’re preoccupied with their phones.
The worst, she says, is when “you’re sitting with a group of people and we’ve gotten the check and there’s this awkward silence because there’s maybe two or three people who are just like drilling down on their phone,” she told me over the phone. “Like, ‘I’m writing the Yelp review right now,’ and it’s like, you just couldn’t wait ’til later to do that?”
She offered up a delightfully low-tech alternative, similar to keeping a Zagat guide in your tote bag.
“My parents do this really cute thing—when Jonathan Gold would print these long ‘100 Restaurants You Need to Try in LA’ lists, my parents printed it out and kept it in the car,” she said. “So they had a running checklist of all of these recommended restaurants.”