Can dozens of Yelp contributors be wrong?

Stereo 8. Wade Spees/Staff Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Earlier this week, the owner of Stereo 8 got in touch with Eater Charleston to complain about my review of his James Island restaurant. David LeBoutillier briefly questioned the purpose of reviews that don’t help boost business, but his main charge centered on the discrepancy between my write-up and the positive comments posted to online sites such as Facebook and Yelp.

“The disparity is astonishing,” LeBoutillier told Eater Charleston’s editor Erin Perkins.

Really, though, the disparity isn’t even mildly surprising. There is a common misconception that restaurant reviewing is like math, in which practitioners can use whatever formula they choose, so long as they find the same value for ‘x.’ But there is no such thing as a correct opinion: Professional and civilian reviews differ because they represent totally different approaches.

First, a word about what I mean by professional: Obviously, if an independent journalism organization pays someone to serve as a critic, that person qualifies as a professional. But in the current freelance economy, that’s not a hugely useful definition. Instead, it’s better to define professional critics as critics who adhere to the Association of Food Journalists’ ethics code.

The code is a somewhat lengthy document (full disclose: I worked on the document’s latest update), but the salient points include the following: Professionals pay for their own meals; never ask for special treatment and alert readers to any potential biases. A known food blogger, for example, wouldn’t qualify as a professional, even if he or she had racked up years of eating experience. Nor are there enough fancy-sounding words in the world to make a professional out of a restaurateur’s friend or relative who posts warm fuzzies to the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Most importantly, a professional is tasked with producing a review, not a quick impression. Unlike many other full-time critics, I’m really fond of online reviewing sites: I firmly believe that it deepens people’s dining experiences to try chronicling them for strangers, and I maintain that more conversation can only enliven a restaurant scene. In fact, I’m such a fan of the genre that I wrote a book to encourage more eaters to post about their restaurant meals.

Yet the reality is that a Yelp “review” is in no way a review in the professional sense. I like the phrase “restaurant reviewer” better than “restaurant critic,” since “critical” has exclusively negative connotations in popular culture. But the word “review” is confusing too. It doesn’t hint at what a professional review actually entails.

At its best, a review is a considered opinion of a restaurant, based on three or more anonymous visits. Those visits are carefully planned so that, ideally, every menu item and available seating area is sampled and rigorously documented. That’s because the aim of a professional review is to contextualize a restaurant within the surrounding dining scene, which means taking account of other restaurants that specialize in the same cuisine and nearby restaurants offering higher quality experiences at a cheaper price. A good critic will also call on history and contemporary food culture in an effort to get at the restaurant’s significance and value.

Needless to say, that’s not what Yelpers do. A customer might order a burger and fries, and then tell the world whether she liked them.

So back to the original question: Will she and a professional critic reach the same conclusion? It’s possible: Some restaurants are so consistently spectacular (or consistently dreadful) that it’s clear from one dish whether a recommendation is warranted. But in far more cases, it takes multiple meals to determine a restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses. Yet online reviewers have a knack for extrapolating in the restaurant’s favor, especially when influenced by circumstances such as friendship or a vacation mindset. Remember, Americans like a lot of stuff, including Terminator Genisys and Maroon 5.

I randomly checked the Yelp reviews for a few of the restaurants I’ve found disappointing, and wasn’t surprised to find most of them score highly with customers. That’s partly because the Yelp grading scale is wildly inflated: 67 percent of restaurants are rated at least four stars on Yelp, while The Post and Courier hasn’t awarded its highest possible rating to a restaurant in years. Interestingly, the one instance in which my summation aligned almost exactly with customer opinion was Chick’s Fry House, which features a very limited menu and counter service, so it’s easier to grasp in the span of a single visit.

More common is a restaurant like Magnolias, to which I awarded one star for food. On Yelp, it’s holding steady at 4.5 stars – much to some Yelpers’ chagrin. “On Yelp and everyone we talked to in the city clamed Magnolias green tomatoes were epic,” Stefanie A. wrote on Saturday. “When I tasted them, disappointed doesn’t even cover it. While they held up through frying, they didn’t have one hint of flavor or seasoning. The cheesy grits were also a letdown.”

Or as I wrote in my May review, “Iconic fried green tomatoes, perched on a platform of cheesed-out grits, come across as tomatoes in shape only.”

Nobody is wrong here. I’m thrilled that Stereo 8 has resonated with a group of diners. But it’s my job to help a much larger group of readers spend their dining-out dollars wisely. Failing to parrot the party line on a restaurant is hardly cause for concern: It’s a reason to celebrate the continued survival of professional criticism.