Apr 6, 2012
08:11 AM
Café Connecticut

Everyone's a Critic

 

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“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.”

Everyone's a Critic

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