Apr 6, 2012
08:11 AMCafé Connecticut
Everyone's a Critic
“I don’t remember what I ordered. I do remember it was not good.” “I should have listened to my little voice that said “RUN AWAY!!!! This place is evilllllllllllllll!” “It felt like a scam. I have never before in my life felt so cheated . . .” “Our experience was so bad I actually created a Yelp’account just to blast this restaurant.”
Welcome to the world of online reviewing, where even the most respected restaurants are struck by unnamed people with an emotional ax to whack. With the proliferation of sites like Yelp, Chowhound and Open Table, and the explosion of food blogs, etiquette and accountability are out the window. Remember “Never send a letter you wouldn’t sign your name to”? These days, it’s click and let it rip.
Even when positive comments far outweigh the negative, the negative ones sting, and they resonate in the online community. Restaurateurs wonder, “Why don’t guests speak up when they’re here? Don’t get mad, get pleased—talk to us,” says Janine Scotti, partner with her husband, Pietro, at Da Pietro’s Restaurant in Westport. Adds Mary Schaffer, co-owner of Napa & Co. in Stamford, “We’re all human, and mistakes happen. But give the restaurant a chance to address and rectify it. We’d rather kill you with kindness.”
In person, people can be fearful of confrontation. Most haven’t learned to communicate complaints constructively. Online comments like “We noticed our table lamp was the only one that was not lit—it remained unlit the entire evening (a pet peeve of mine!),” beg the question, why didn’t you just ask the waiter to light it?
Granted, a guest dining with a client might not want to cast a shadow over the evening by grumbling. But when he or she goes online afterward, Schaffer hopes the criticism is constructive. Scotti concurs. “The service was lousy” doesn’t help a restaurateur pinpoint and fix the problem the way “the service was slow” does.
Online comments can be useful, however. “It’s a really good way for me to monitor what’s going on—I use it as a team-builder,” says Tyler Anderson, executive chef of Brasserie Pip at the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton. At Napa, online comments are printed and shared with the staff. “Even if it’s not true, or exaggerated, they need to see what’s out there,” Schaffer says.
In contrast, traditional, established reviewers for print or online publications bring “a knowledge of the product and the industry, and a respect for the industry,” says Schaffer. And, professional writers like Connecticut Magazine’s Elise Maclay craft their words carefully. Maclay, who grew up with a grandfather who owned a restaurant, worked as an advertising copywriter and wrote about food for national magazines before she was tapped to be Connecticut’s restaurant reviewer. She’s traveled—and eaten—all over the world. “Foodies who like to blog are relatively benign, ranting about slights and raving about restaurants to their ego’s content without a shred of accountability,” she says. “But professional critics visit restaurants anonymously and have the training and experience to make unbiased judgments, and report them clearly.”
But how much does one educated opinion count these days? Anderson says a professional restaurant reviewer doesn’t offer him the “full scope” of opinions of Open Table, which has 63 reviews of Pip’s that allow him to “definitely see the trends.” Among online comment sites, Anderson puts most stock in Open Table because in order to comment, one must have made a reservation through the site. And if guests complain later, he says, restaurateurs are able to send an email to apologize and “offer them something.”
One frustrating point can be comments about price. “When they say that a bottle of wine cost $9.99 in a liquor store or they could have made the chicken themselves at home . . . We employ 38 people and there are so many intangibles,” says Schaffer. “We’re making a dish with special ingredients and 19 steps. I wish the consumer was more knowledgeable.”
When Jeff Schlessinger, who earned a following on Chowhound under the name “Jfood,” started writing for the popular Web site CTbites.com two years ago, he gave up his anonymity and changed his tone. CTbites prides itself on presenting only positive reviews of “places we like.” “I was tired of sniping,” Schlessinger says. “I’m enjoying the positive approach of CTbites.” Reader comments, however, are anonymous, “which allows people to be slightly irresponsible sometimes,” says CTbites founder Stephanie Webster. “They say things they’d never say in person.”
Schlessinger has felt the sting himself. His glowing write-ups of one restaurant elicited a series of comments implying that he “worked for the restaurant” and was “doing PR.” Schlessinger, who works in finance and is an amateur writer, says he’s motivated only by a love of food. “Personal attacks are hard to take,” he adds. Scotti suspected friends of rival restaurants when, in contrast to The New York Times “Very Good” review of the Scottis’ Zest, also in Westport (now closed), an online reviewer said, “It was like airplane food.” Restaurateurs are busy—too busy to pad sites or track down anonymous critics. “I bite the bullet,” she says. But she’d like to see more cooperation between restaurants, customers and online sites. “Restaurants and customers should not be adversaries,” she says. “We want you to be happy.”Everyone's a Critic