Q: Hanna Raskin! I am at my wit’s end. OK, so here's the deal. I went to The Wyld (in Savannah), almost exclusively because of your rave review a couple of years ago. Loved it. But I tried two other places that got rave reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor and I hated them.
So my question: When I'm looking at reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor about certain restaurants, is there a trick I can use to cut through the rave reviews to decipher which ones can be trusted? I already know a couple of the obvious ones: Trust reviewers who are locals more than the tourists (check!), and trust reviewers who have reviewed a ton of places more than the ones who have reviewed just a few (check!) BUT are there any other tricks you use?
A: Isn’t The Wyld great? Of course, its charm peaks in summertime, when guests can play bocce deep into the night and chef-owner Tony Seichrist can putter into the surrounding marsh to gather crabs for supper. But Seichrist recently announced plans to take over the handsome space vacated by Hugh Acheson’s The Florence, so his food will have a chance to shine in all seasons. Never mind what Yelp ends up saying: That restaurant, tentatively titled Coyote, is definitely worth adding to your Savannah list when it opens.
Like you, I’m not inclined to discount crowd-sourced sites entirely. In cities that aren’t served by a professional food critic, they can be very valuable. But you’re right that you can’t assume that the restaurants which emerge as the top three or four will meet your standards, in part because of the echo chamber effect. If a restaurant is highly rated on Yelp or TripAdvisor, it will draw a greater number of guests primed for a memorable experience, which they’ll then dutifully recount online, thereby improving the restaurant’s standing.
Putting stars aside, I think your strategies for dealing with citizen reviewers’ narratives are excellent. I would also pay close attention to how the writers word their assessments: Yelpers are notorious for happening upon “the best taco I ever had!” and “the worst crab cake I ever had!” It’s fair to say those diners haven’t given much consideration either to the meal in question, or every meal that preceded it. I’d dismiss their conclusions completely.
In fact, I don’t put much stock in what Yelpers think, even when they helpfully disclose their background and biases. What I’m after are facts, and there are usually plenty to be gleaned from even a poorly composed write-up (“the worst review I ever read!”)
Say a Yelper relates a story about a server singing a ditty about the restaurant’s shrimp-and-grits. The Yelper may feel the server sang off-key, or complain that the lyrics weren’t accurate. That’s immaterial. What’s relevant is this is a restaurant where the servers break into song. And if the Yelper couldn’t hear the server over the screaming children at the next table, that tells you something, too.
And while reviews are great for information about atmosphere and service style, the menu and photos posted to online sites are especially useful for determining whether you’ll like the food. I look at a lot of food, so it’s probably easier for me to size up a dish by its appearance (although I’m certainly far from infallible.)
Generally, though, this is literally a matter of going with your gut: If an image doesn’t make you want to try a dish, it’s doubtful you’ll feel differently in person. For this reason, it’s sometimes a good idea to check out Instagram postings from a restaurant too, despite the well-known phenomenon of chefs devising dishes expressly to show off on social media.
I wish I could give you a more definitive answer, if only because I’d love a surefire way to translate what Yelp’s trying to tell me. But I still think it’s worth sticking with the sites, even if you only read them for the pictures.
Have a dining question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.