The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
Reading reviews before plunking down cash for a purchase has become practically mandatory, whether it’s for an air fryer or an SUV. You likely scour Amazon reviews for the best cheap wireless headphones, consult the Wirecutter on the best immersion blender, scope out hotels on TripAdvisor, or scroll through Yelp before deciding which local pizzeria to order from. Intrepid diners are particularly enthusiastic about checking out reviews for new restaurants, with consumer surveys indicating that 91 percent of people read online reviews for local businesses at least occasionally — because unlike a crappy pair of headphones, a bad meal can’t be returned.
But as anyone who’s spent time scouring restaurant reviews on Google, Yelp, Foursquare, or TripAdvisor knows, not all user-generated reviews are created equal: As Lifehacker notes, “The rule with sites like Yelp is to take the general sentiment of the reviews with the understanding that the strangely glowing ones are probably staff or management, while the particularly nasty and vitriolic ones are probably self-entitled people who like to hear themselves complain.” Actually useful reviews fall somewhere in the middle, uncolored by vested interest in the restaurant’s success or failure and painting a relatively objective opinion of the diner’s experience.
Whether it’s a five-star Google review for a new coffee shop or a one-star Yelp evaluation for a neighborhood restaurant that’s gone to hell under new management, chances are you’ve posted at least one online restaurant review in your internet career (and probably will again). Rather than contributing to the endless sea of bad reviews out there that suffer from a lack of useful details, a palpable sense of entitlement (i.e., “Food and staff was great but was my birthday and I didn’t get a free dessert. One star!”), or just plain mean-spiritedness, do your part to make the internet a slightly better place and write one that’s worth reading by keeping a few simple guidelines in mind.
Don’t announce yourself as a reviewer.
Professional restaurant critics typically remain anonymous when they dine out for reviews, and you should, too. Announcing yourself as a Yelper implies you expect special treatment, and that’s the kind of entitled attitude that spurred South Park to skewer Yelp reviewers in a legendary 2016 episode. Also, if you tell the staff you’re a reviewer and do get preferential treatment (better service, more carefully cooked food, bigger portions, etc.) then your review won’t reflect the typical experience someone can expect to have at that restaurant, therefore defeating the whole purpose of writing a review in the first place. (You’re writing this review to give the restaurant feedback and help your fellow diners decide where to best spend their hard-earned money and not to boost your own ego, right? Right?)
Consider your implicit bias.
When it comes to reviewing restaurants and food from cultures that are not your own, be mindful. No one’s saying you can’t have strong feelings about tacos if you’re not Mexican, but be wary of using terms like “authentic” and “hole in the wall.” According to a recent study of 20,000 Yelp reviews of NYC restaurants, non-European cuisines, particularly Chinese and Mexican, are judged more heavily on their “authenticity” — which is typically associated with qualities like cheap prices and plastic stools, “build[ing] an authenticity trap where reviews reinforce harmful stereotypes that then become nearly impossible for restaurateurs to shake off.” (Other studies indicate that this kind of casual racism also makes people more likely to think they received food poisoning from non-European restaurants, despite the fact that it’s notoriously difficult to pin down the source of foodborne illnesses.)
In addition to avoiding propping up the “authenticity” trap, if it’s a cuisine you’re unfamiliar with, consider doing the tiniest bit of research before criticizing it. Saying “The meat in my pho had a lot of chewy gristle” when it was actually the beef tendon stated on the menu makes you look like a jerk, and you’re also missing an opportunity to expand your own culinary horizons.
Be specific and detailed with your feedback — positive or negative.
General statements like “The food was awesome!!” or “The steak sucked” aren’t particularly helpful to a reader, nor are they helpful to a restaurant owner who might be reading their reviews in search of actionable feedback. Unless it’s, say, a walk-up window or a takeout-only spot, aim to cover the three big points — food, service, and ambience — and be specific about what you liked (and what you didn’t): Say the pizza had plenty of toppings and a nice crispy crust, or that your server was friendly and attentive, or that the playlist sucked because it had too much Nickelback.
Also, don’t write a review of a place you went a year ago just to up your review count in pursuit of some sort of imaginary online clout. Reviews that say things like, “Went here a few months ago, don’t really remember specifics but food was okay, staff sucked” are surprisingly common and are useful to precisely no one.
Don’t take free food in exchange for leaving a good review.
Besides being against most review sites’ terms of service, accepting free food in exchange for leaving a good review and not disclosing it is actually a violation of Federal Trade Commission guidelines. Sure, the odds of getting busted for a review you wrote about a local burger spot in exchange for a free order of cheese fries are close to zero, but if you suffer from typical millennial anxiety, it’s just one more thing to keep you awake at night.
Before leaving a bad review, give the restaurant a chance to make it right.
Don’t post a negative review over something like food that came out cold, overcooked steak, or a flat glass of prosecco without first attempting to address it with the staff. Restaurants want you to be satisfied — give them a chance. No, it is not your job to only write glowing reviews of restaurants. You’re (probably) not a PR person or a marketing shill. But it is your civic duty to not trash someone’s business just for the hell of it. And wouldn’t you prefer having a good dining experience over racing home to gleefully write a one-star review? (Hopefully.)
Also, definitely don’t write a bad review while you’re still at the restaurant in lieu of talking to a manager about an issue that may have arisen, whether it’s a rude server or a cockroach. This sounds ridiculous, but it happens more than you’d think — especially on Yelp.
And if the restaurant makes it right, reconsider that one-star review: Say your steak arrived overcooked, but the server promptly whisked it away and returned with a proper med-rare specimen, or your soup was oversalted, but the manager took it off your bill. Restaurants are complex operations and mistakes happen — what’s really important is whether the staff resolved the issue when you brought it to their attention.