He sits at the window table, which was only awarded to him after he snubbed the booth seat he was originally led to by the cheerful hostess. Stephen Maouyo, a Boston University student waits at Petit Robert Bistro in Kenmore Square for his steak frites.
After consuming a gooey French onion soup, which he promised to be “better than the cafes in Paris”, his flank steak arrives. He slices the meat open and finds it slightly pinker and, after tasting, more peppery than desired.
“I’ll certainly mention on Yelp the great appetizer and bread,” Maouyo says between sips of Chimay. “But the fact that the steak came slightly rare and over-seasoned is going to cost them a decent rating. Our waiter also took some time to refill my water,” the critic laments.
In today’s digital era, Mauoyo is not limited to leaving a short tip to express his sentiment. Restaurateurs have more to fear than the ever-elusive professional reviewer, as Mauoyo is among the legions of amateur critics who regularly post on the website Yelp.com.
Aggregating more than 4.5 million opinions for over 16.5 million visitors, Yelp is completely changing the face of how people receive their information about a certain venue. As food criticism becomes more egalitarian, there are certain aspects the professional food journalist promises their readers, such as pure objectivity, legitimate credibility, and uncompromising editing, that Yelpers and citizen reviewers do not.
There are some new-age critics that have mixed feelings about the changing face of food criticism. MC Slim JB, who declined to provide his true name and age, is a contributor to the Boston Phoenix, a Yelper and a blogger. A veteran of the restaurant industry, working from dishwasher to maitre d’, and having a “lifelong obsession with finding food and drink”, MC Slim JB feels as if he has a better grasp of what the restaurant is trying to achieve than the average consumer.
He was discovered on ChowHound.com, a peer-reviewed forum site similar to Yelp. He feels that although the rise in amateur reviewers is crucial, “you must analyze the new flood of available information, not swallow it whole.” When MC Slim JB contributes to Yelp, he employs similar techniques that he strives for in his Phoenix writings.
“I tend to focus on what’s good about a place. If it’s really terrible, I will delay or kill the review; bad places tend to either improve or disappear,” he writes in an email. He explains that he aims to guide readers’ enjoyment at a restaurant. “I think amateurs tend to overestimate how valuable the excoriating slam reviews is to other readers,” he says.
Anya Furman, a 24-year old graduate student, has been Yelping since March 2008. Furman was recently given “elite status”. According to Yelp.com, the elites “realize the importance of writing fairly and with accountability.”
Furman does not read restaurant reviews; instead she immediately opts for a click to Yelp. “It’s not likely that professionals will review my local hole-in-the-wall-midnight-munchies-place, but when I see that 30 people who live in the same zip code gave it five stars, I will go there.”
Matthew Kemp, a manager at Petit Robert Bistro in Boston, has a different opinion. Kemp finds a minute to talk between a packed lunch rush and an anticipated full house for dinner. One might think a restaurant worker who agrees with critics is suspicious, but Kemp, although he likes the idea of Yelp, favors professional journalists.
“I see that Frank Bruni or Ruth Reichl, they have a moral code and experience. These trained professional food writers use the approach of finding out what the restaurant is trying to offer. Their critique is all about whether that is achieved or not,” Kemp offers. “These critics have gone to the restaurant multiple times, under different circumstances and see how the restaurant really works.”
In a New York Times feature on French chefs, Michael Johnson, a journalist based in Bordeaux, France, raved about Petit Robert Bistro in a visit to New England. He described the restaurant’s hachi as “excellent, not like the horror we get in France.” Similarly, Kellie Speed, a writer with over 20 years of food criticism experience, reviewed Petit Robert’s restaurant in Needham. Speed writes, “There are few places that can transport you to Europe with generous portions, gracious service and reasonably priced entrees.” The Boston Globe gave the bistro an overall review of three stars, which translate to “excellent” by the rating system at Boston.com/dining.
Furman also reviewed Petit Robert Bistro on Yelp, the same Commonwealth Avenue location that Kemp manages. In her one-star review she writes, “This is a mediocre restaurant at best. The chicken I had tasted like Shaw’s rotisserie chicken. Avoid.” Although there are many factors missed that a professional reviewer would not, it is difficult to ignore her “elite status” which signifies her as established by Yelp standards, regardless of her staunch difference in opinion to professional critics.
Yao Wu, a 23-year-old law student at Boston University, is also a prolific Yelper. A professed food snob, she draws readers to her profile with her promise of having “impeccable taste and a palate that would be the envy of James Beard.” Although only reviewing 22 locales, she proves to be a tough judge with only one five-star rating. An avid reader of Frank Bruni and a believer in objectivity, Wu also feels that professional critics are not the only ones that matter.
“I think that sites like Yelp have dispelled the myth that only professional critics possess the necessary experience or palate to review a restaurant’s food or ambience,” Wu stated in an on-line interview. “After all, we all eat food.”
Wu tries to implement professional techniques in her writing. “I include all relevant circumstances that might have affected my perception of a restaurant,” she explains. However, MC Slim JB is still wary of the average Yelper, although some decry JB’s credibility due to his unknown pre-Chowhound journalism experience and anonymity.
“I have to build up a level of trust in an individual reviewer over time before I start listening to their advice. I value expertise greater than mine in a particular area and I place zero trust in completely anonymous reviews,” MC Slim JB states. “I don’t need advice from someone whose favorite restaurant might be the Cheesecake Factory.”
It is difficult to ignore the ever-augmenting pool of reviews on Yelp, and the growing visitorship. Although Yelp.com and any online review forums are peppered with biased reports and extremely subjective writing, it is important to take these amateur reviews with a grain of salt. Perhaps this is the future of food journalism – the exclusivity of professional criticism digesting in the bowels of the e-bourgeoisie.