Remember dining before Yelp? What it was like to daringly try new restaurants without the aid of an app or strangers? Outside of word-of-mouth, the default (if not foolproof) practice was to walk around town and eyeball which restaurant was the most crowded.
Fast forward to now, and all of that word-of-mouth is online. Yelp has transformed the restaurant industry, mostly for the better. Hidden gems can turn into three-hour waits overnight. Three-star reviews encourage us to keep looking. And who wants to meander aimlessly when our phone can guide us to the food we didn’t even know we wanted?
More and more, our dining choices live and die by online reviews. But doesn’t something get lost? Are we missing out as Yelp becomes the new default? Yes. Sometimes you’ll need to read between the lines and be a bit of a Yelp rebel to truly enjoy something amazing.
Angry masses lead to great surprises
Some might argue that serial Yelpers have come to rule the restaurant industry with a cast-iron fist. Studies have proven the so-called “Yelp Effect,” pointing out that the mere difference of half of a star can have a sizable impact on a restaurant’s bottom-line. That puts a lot of pressure on a restaurant, particularly for the chefs.
Studies have proven the so-called "Yelp Effect," pointing out that the mere difference of half of a star can have a sizable impact on a restaurant’s bottom-line.
The Philadelphia-based blog Billy Penn reported on the influence online reviews have had on local fare. “Whether they view it as constructive, a plague, or a necessary evil, no one in the restaurant world can deny the impact of Yelp on their kitchens and on their businesses,” says writer Danya Henninger. “In fact, I couldn’t find a single chef or restaurateur working today who doesn’t have some kind of story about the ubiquitous consumer experience-rating service.”
Chef Joe Cicala is one of them. In 2015, Cicala opened Brigantessa with authentic Italian dishes called “sfizi and spuntini;” small-plate style foods that are meant to satisfy a particular craving beyond the main meal. But the dining crowd in Philadelphia couldn’t grasp the difference or appreciate the authenticity. They took to Yelp to voice their displeasure.
Cicala had to cave in and give the diners what they wanted. “They won, and now we offer only ‘antipasti,’” he told Billy Penn. “Our desire to offer something unique, authentic and of cultural significance must be put aside temporarily because in the end, we must please the guest.” It’s an unfortunate circumstance not just for the chefs, but for the adventurous eaters who don’t mind paying a little extra for a unique culinary experience. (One that is now lost forever.)
How to rebel Yelp: Take note of reviews that knock a new restaurant’s offerings as something weird or unorthodox. Take them as your cue to try something unlike anything you’ve tried before (hopefully before it’s too late). Reviews that freak out over something unfamiliar often say more about the reviewer than the cuisine. And make sure you post your own review to counter the uncreative naysayers.
Diamonds can be buried in bullshit
Surely you’ve seen the long, drawn-out Yelp review of someone going over the play-by-play of the WORST. MEAL. EVER. Anthony Bourdain (who’s still the coolest dude in food and a goldmine for pugnacious takes) thinks that’s the kind of negativity that’s ruining the restaurant industry. “There’s really no worse, or lower human being than an elite Yelper,” he shared with Business Insider in an interview for his film Wasted. “They are the very picture of entitled, negative energy. They’re bad for chefs, they’re bad for restaurants.”
On paper, an Elite Yelper should be good for consumers; they’re power users that write quality reviews and are nominated to act as influencers. But as Bourdain mentioned, Elite Yelpers have gotten a bit of an entitled reputation for the perks that Yelp provides them. (Isn’t this why old-school food critics dined anonymously?) That includes special early access to restaurants and sponsored events—usually far from the norm of a regular dining experience.
Still, Yelp thrives on the idea that “everybody’s a critic” even if not everyone is cut out to write a thoughtful, considerate take on their dining experience. It’s increasingly rare to find a regular review that sums up the good and the bad elements of a meal—particularly one that isn’t hung up on one side or the other. One often has to devour many reviews to find the unbiased honesty.
Yelp thrives on the idea that “everybody’s a critic” even if not everyone is cut out to write a thoughtful, considerate take on their dining experience.
How to rebel Yelp: Avoid the obviously drama-baited or troll reviews with low-star ratings; you don’t need that negativity in your life. And take the Elite Yelp reviews with a proverbial grain of salt if the high-star ratings seem too biased. Look for reviews that are critical, but still empathetically highlight the details. Could be tough, but they’ll help you better discover exactly what you’re looking for.
The greatest burger in America (not according to Yelp)
I went to Portland, Oregon recently where there was a new “must-try” in town outside of the cereal-covered donuts and great beer: the supposed “greatest burger in America.” A food critic named Kevin Alexander spent a year trying 330 different burgers and was tasked to rank them in a Thrillist article, "The 100 Best Burgers in America." His number one choice was the “Nick’s Cheeseburger” from an unpretentious, old mom-and-pop burger joint called Stanich’s; a dark horse pick amongst the likes of far more popular restaurants.
The fact that few knew of this place despite it being around since 1949 gave it that “best-kept secret” appeal, stirring a lot of curiosity. And much to the surprise of Yelpers (and eventual spurn), Stanich’s wasn’t at all accommodating to them. They gave preference to their blue-collar clientele and kept only one cook behind the grill, causing wait times for a table to balloon to over three hours. A wait like that might be understandable for a Michelin-starred meal, but this was a $7 burger consumed amidst sticky wood-paneling decorated with dusty, tattered sports pennants.
And much to the surprise of Yelpers (and eventual spurn), Stanich’s wasn’t at all accommodating to them. They gave preference to their blue-collar clientele and kept only one cook behind the grill, causing wait times for a table to balloon to over three hours.
Most of the Yelp reviews were vicious; some wrote a one-star review based solely on a server telling them how long the wait would be (without even trying the burger). But the majority of those criticisms aren’t anywhere near as thoughtful as the praise that Kevin Alexander delivered. He gave a careful description of how lovingly the burger was crafted, noting how “the sesame bun was griddled perfectly, preventing the somewhat messy burger from leaking” and how it’s construction led to a “mixture of sweet and salty flavors [he hadn’t] experienced anywhere else.” He proclaimed the burger was “a national treasure,” which, after taste-testing 329 other burgers against it, is quite the high praise.
I initially thought the bad Yelp reviews were mostly because of how woefully unprepared Stanich’s was for the limelight and the crowds… but here’s the fun part: Stanich’s had bad-to-mixed reviews on Yelp before Alexander’s story ran. Alexander’s discovery of “the greatest burger in America” happened in a manner that could be called “organic”—he heard about the place from a friend and with no expectation that his meal would be a borderline religious experience. He was able to look past Stanich’s shortcomings and recognize the many positives of the meal—all without being colored by Yelp. I waited nearly an hour for one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten and it was totally worth it.
How to rebel Yelp: Ignore Yelp altogether. Cast a wider net and read about food from writers, food critics (the real ones), and publications you trust, then take a chance. Sometimes you’ll find something amazing, sometimes not. But it’s still possible to have a good old-fashioned pre-Yelp food adventure. And just think about the Yelp review you’ll get to craft after uncovering your find.
Brett Grossfeld is a San Francisco-based writer, marketer, and information junkie. He's a content marketer with Zendesk and a frequent contributor to their blog. He'd also like to be the first to congratulate you for reading all the way through this.