Why you can’t trust restaurant reviews

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

It’s Friday night. You want to go out for dinner somewhere cool but you’re sick of your favorite places, or maybe you’re new to town or passing through on a trip and you have no one to ask for a recommendation. In short, your only options are to just go the old-fashioned way and walk into a place that looks good from the outside or search for restaurants online and peruse reviews to see if they’ll be. good.

The problem is, platforms like TripAdvisor and Yelp – which were sort of invented for this type of situation – are full of fake reviews. Additionally, people are much more likely to leave a review when they’ve had a bad experience, which skews the overall restaurant rating and turns many review sections into a very entertaining dumpster fire. This can be disastrous, especially for small businesses that have just opened – a 2020 study found that an early bad review can turn customers away in the long run, and that review platforms actually have an inherent bias. towards popular restaurants.

The only other alternative, it seems, is to read food articles and blogs and hope to land on an honest review. But if you’ve ever ventured into the tangled world of food criticism, you’ll know these things can be hit and miss. Sometimes a new place will get stellar reviews only to disappoint once you get there.

Food is by definition a matter of taste, and different people appreciate different aspects of a restaurant experience – the decor, the ambiance, the price, the surprise factor – but, according to Slovenian food and travel blogger Kaja Sajovic, there is actually more story.

“We all know food journalists aren’t paid enough to cover the cost of a restaurant dinner, so press trips have become a necessity to do our job,” Sajovic says. “And that creates a lot of ethical dilemmas. Can you really give a bad review of a restaurant you’ve been invited to, with flights and hotels covered? I think it’s difficult, and maybe even a little unfair.

Of course, Sajovic talks mostly about freelancers and food bloggers. Journalists who receive a stable salary and their expenses covered may be much freer when writing their review, but they are certainly the exception rather than the rule in the industry.

Culinary writer Paola Miglio, publisher of the Peruvian website El Trinche [Spanish for “The Carving”], says she has always made a point of being uncompromising with her opinions. “If I don’t like something, I say so. And I write it down, even when I’ve been invited [to the restaurant], says Miglio. “In my three years as a food critic in a newspaper, I’ve only been bullied a handful of times by a restaurateur or chef on social media. I never felt the pressure to rent anything or anyone.

For many other culinary authors, things aren’t that simple. Some choose to build their audiences on sarcasm – think British food critic Jay Rayner and his book Wasted calories and wasted nights, once described as creating a “bloodthirsty sport by destroying culinary reputations”. It certainly fits the stereotype of a food critic. In reality, writers like Rayner are an exception in an industry plagued by festive hyperbole and easy enthusiasm.

“There are few chefs who respond well and kindly to criticism,” says food journalist Gabriele Zanatta, who writes for the Italian web magazine. Golose Identity (“Greedy identities”). Zanatta believes it’s because cooks historically have been mostly hidden figures. Only with France news culinary movement of the 1960s, which revolutionized international cuisine, as chefs rose to fame and “even achieved celebrity status over the past two decades,” says Zanatta. “No wonder they are intolerant of criticism! They had never been on such a pedestal. “

However, Zanatta also believes that this chef-centric approach to culinary writing is slowly fading away. “We’re now paying more attention not just to food, but to all the other aspects that make a restaurant a restaurant,” he says. In his experience, chefs today are more willing to listen, provided that the reviews they receive are not just a pretext for a food critic to flaunt his knowledge and opinions.

To avoid this, Zanatta says he tends to “give his reviews in private.” This is how many food writers tend to work: public praise and private criticism. But for Chiara Cavalleris, editor-in-chief of the Italian culinary news site Dissaporates (“Disgust”), this too is a problem. “The industry is plagued by press dinners which are inevitably followed by positive reviews,” she said. The resulting reviews are positive – except in very rare cases – with food editors trying to squeeze in the review without shaking the boat too much.

“Obviously, overwhelmingly positive or totally negative reviews work well on social media – they add color,” Cavalleris continues. But choosing not to praise a restaurant in an article can also cost you traffic to your site. “It’s not their duty to share [the piece on social media], but I’ve noticed that if they don’t get a very high rating or a flood of compliments, they never do.

Cavalleris said one of the most disturbing food press boot-licking incidents she’s encountered happened when her site posted a negative review of Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant based in the city ​​of Modena, in the north of the country, owned by famous chef Massimo Bottura. “The review dared to touch an idol, Massimo Bottura, a man who can never be questioned,” she says. “Immediately after its release, two different newspapers ran two positive articles to try and fix things.”

Cavalleris believes food journalists are not to blame for the state of affairs, but the food press in general. She believes the media are guilty of colluding with restaurateurs, an issue that has also been raised in a scandal involving the three-Michelin-starred Florentine restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri. In October 2021, 77-year-old owner Giorgio Pinchiorri was sentenced to four months in prison for harassing a former employee, lifting the veil on his restaurant’s toxic work culture. No traditional food press in Italy has mentioned it.

Having personally met many chefs in a more or less professional capacity, I could not help but notice how many of them would really benefit from genuinely engaging with journalists in the sector.

I spoke about it with Matteo Fronduti, chef of Manna, a restaurant in Milan. He thinks chefs shouldn’t take reviews so personally because there’s no point seeking mass approval if you truly believe your kitchen is a work of art. “If you are truly avant-garde, why bother with the thoughts of an ordinary person who by definition cannot understand the avant-garde? he asks.

Fronduti’s argument may be a little pretentious, but he is also, in a way, right. Last September, the New York Times posted a scathing review of Swiss chef Daniel Humm’s all-vegan tasting menu, which he presented at Eleven Madison Park, his New York restaurant. The reviewer accused the three-Michelin-starred restaurant of jumping on the sustainability bandwagon while continuing to serve meat in private dining rooms for its most lavish patrons.

Hmmm is one of the world’s most famous chefs and could have sent his scathing response to the world’s major food media. But he did not do it. Instead, he continues to charge € 300 per person for his dining experience, even though the NYT the reviewer said one of his dishes tasted like wood varnish. So much for misunderstood visionaries.

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