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Apr 10, 2013 11:27 PM

Boston's own MCSlim on Good and Bad Restnt Reviews

I hope youall have seen this piece on EaterBoston:

Very well thought out and articulate as usual. I wish CH would make it a permanent sticky. If CHs really took it to heart, it would make our board so much better ! don’t you think?

p.s. Moderators: Can I plse change my moniker to:
"food geek who considers a merely okay meal to be an avoidable tragedy" ? LOVE it, MC.

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  1. Of course the #1 rule of pro reviewing is don't write the review until you've been multiple times. But if the food is shit, why would I spend money going again as a private citizen? Just to write a "better" Yelp review? This is unrealistic.

    And the inclusion of "credentials" is actually key to allowing others to weight your review properly. Personally I'm grateful to everyone who started their review with "I've never had this type of food before but it was great!" I can just plain ignore those.

    Basically my point is that while all I agree with all of Slim's points in spirit, the reality is that in this user-review-dominated age, we need a good heuristic for sorting the shills and the morons from the useful reviewers; we can't just make the bad ones go away.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Luther

      a few thoughts on what i find to be a very interesting topic!

      On going a place once-
      Interesting debate on twitter by some prof reviewers on what to do if you only go somewhere once or twice. some people file, others won't do a full review but might mention a bad meal (see some of ryan sutton's excellent posts on the bad deal).

      granted, for pro reviewers, they don't have to create a comprehensive list. on yelp, you may want to know about a *specific* restaurant, so the function is obvs different. that said:

      even if you had a horrible experience, you still had only a handful of dishes, on one specific evening, with one specific server, and you should make that caveat clear so the review isn't overweighted. Wells or Sifton (i forget which) mentioned in an article how they have plenty of favorite restaurants that only get a couple of dishes *right*, but they're regulars because those few dishes are so good. but if they were to review the place, it would score middling to poor because they have to evaluate the whole menu. upshot: one experience is just that, you are welcome to say just how bad it was, but it still deserves caveats.

      on credentials... i think the broader point was not to not have credentials, but to recognize the dubious nature of many claimed credentials. especially online, anonymously, the only credential i take seriously is the reviewers other reviews/recs.

      if anything, admitting to ignorance, for me, shows a sense of humility and that they are going to give a place a fair shake. you're right that someone may be naive about cuisine/standards, but, on the whole, i find a much higher percentage of reviewers are overly jaded, skeptical, snobbish, or cheap than they are easily pleased, naive, and forgiving.

      In any event, there's also a bit of show and tell issue here- if you need to invoke a credential to tell me why i should give your opinion credence, then you probably aren't doing a very good job in your review of showing me why you're worth listening to.

      of course, that also means that i, as the reader, need to approach reviewers with an open mind, and not discount someone simply because their eating history doesn't seem to match my own...

      1. re: valcfield

        That is in fact my point about credentials, valcfield. Merely asserting "I'm Italian, so I know Italian food" is wasting people's time. I've read tons of reviews of Italian restaurants that lead with this claim to expertise yet are riddled with risible, erroneous notions about the cuisine. In other words, you can't meaningfully tell your expertise online, you can only show it, so don't tell, show.

        Further, you may be an indisputable expert on this cuisine or that, and there's some value to that, but it's still possible to have lousy taste, which most people define as "tastes that are different from mine". The absolute magnitude of expertise is probably less important in getting reliable recommendations than how much the writer's and reader's sensibilities overlap.

        There are exceptions, I think, like the ability to point to your Master of Wine qualification, but I don't run into many of those in amateur forums.

      2. re: Luther

        The visiting multiple times dilemma is really tough for amateurs. Like Luther says, if the food sucks why should I go back?

        1. re: mkfisher

          i don't think there's any obligation to go back, i think its a matter of: a. if you've only been once, highlight the fact prominently at the start of the review so people can wait that appropriaely (esp. if people are skimming, etc.) b. also consider whether that means you just shouldn't bother reviewing a place? I definitely filter out most of my negative experiences, and prefer to only write about places when i want to lend a positive recommendation to it.

          1. re: valcfield

            While I agree with most of this, I do wonder if it brings in a little bit of selection bias. Part of my job entails analyzing Widget X against a broader set of Widgets and figuring out where it ranks. One issue we run into is that most of the commonly used large data samples on Widgets have a selection bias towards better performing Widgets (for a variety of reasons). If we follow your logic, couldn't the same thing be said for restaurants. If we only write negative reviews for places we visit multiple times, but we will never actually visit a bad place multiple times, doesn't that actually skew the reviews towards the positive side? And if so, aren't we totally defeating the purpose of providing accurate info to other possible consumers?

            1. re: mkfisher

              i'll keep this brief given my rambling thoughts elsewhere:

              1. totally right, it causes some upward bias.
              2. in practice, think there will always be enough negative peeps still around to probably outweigh or
              3. i'm ok with a system where, basically, you choose a restaurant because it has gotten lots of good reviews, whereas if no one has chosen to review a place/only a few, good reviews, i know that equates to a more likely bad restaurant
              4. as per my other post, i think a good solution is a board like ch where you don't present users an aggregated #, which forces everyone to do the reading/sorting/thinking we'd like

          2. re: mkfisher

            I have many "once and done" experiences for many reasons from too loud to not a good value. But, I don't cover those places for my site or include them in my columns. There are too many good places to write about and recommend to waste words on the bad stuff.

            I have responded to a request for opinions here about places I didn't like and have always tried to make it clear that it was a "one and done" for me.

            My husband and I also write "first bite" pieces when something about a place makes it exceptional and we want to share. Again, we make it clear that this was our first visit.

            I like to cook so we don't eat out 4 or 5 times a week. That means we always have a list of 50 places we want to try. Why go back to one that was just not right for us.

            It is a matter of knowing who your food scout is. I'll follow MC to a new place because he has guided me to favorites over the years.

            Others on Chowhound clue me on places to avoid because our taste and what is important to us in the choice of a restaurant are so opposite. Both are of value to me and others because we know enough about them to make an informed decision.


          3. re: Luther


            Reading this thread has affirmed one thing for me: the Boston CH board just has to be one of, or THE most educated CH board(s) out there. Just look at the writing and the vocabulary. I'm imPRESSED.

          4. As someone who follow MC Slims blog, I read it a day before EaterBoston linked it.

            To save anyone interested time, here is a link that will take you right to the article.


              1. Excellent piece. He didn't mention my pet peeve with Yelp. People that post pictures of their meals. Even though they may have the latest Iphone/Android with the latest & greatest technology, it doesn't make people photographers. That photo of an amorphous brown blob you posted with a review isn't doing anything to make me want to try that particular restaurant.

                2 Replies
                1. re: jjbourgeois

                  Implying diners need to be photographers to take pictures of their food is like insisting they need to be professional reviewers before they can review a restaurant. That ship has sailed. Sure, some photos may be bad - dimly lit, out of focus - making you wonder why they bothered. But if they're reasonably clear, they are helpful. For example, I appreciate Ferrari328's posts here and on his blog with the multiple photos.

                  1. re: lossless

                    losswless and jjb, I think you both are saying some of the same thing. I'm w/ jj that blurry unreadable photos are not helpful and should not be posted. Whether "well intentioned " or 'egotistical',the bad photographers should learn to edit themselves and not post unreadable(bad) photos.

                    But photos by Ferrari are almost/always excellent and exceedingly helpful. Don't we wish Ferrari could give photo lessons to all the photographers with bad judgment out there?!

                2. I think most people who eat out frequently can tell the difference between a plain old "bad" restaurant, and one that is having an "off night".

                  Also, I'm usually out with friends, so between us we usually have a chance to try a few items on the menu. If the entire table is unhappy with their meals and the service and the atmosphere, as has happened to me in the past, I think it's safe to deem the restaurant a failure in my book.

                  I also think we should keep in mind that these are all OPINIONS. Even the Professional reviewers' give their OPINIONS. I've been to a few places that were raved about here in Chowhound, and I've been unable to understand what the fuss was about. I've recommended favorite restaurants to friends, only to have them be unhappy.

                  It's such a personal thing, whether one likes a restaurant or not.

                  I will say that one of my own pet peeves are the reviews on Yelp and such which begin with: "Well, I HATE Indian food, but my friends dragged me to this Indian restaurant, and it was nasty". I mean, if you hate the whole cuisine, how can you give the place a fair review?

                  I also agree 100% with the peeve of people who have no idea of the specialties of a restaurant and are upset when they can't get what they want. I usually go out for "Jewish Christmas Eve" at Peach Farm in Chinatown. I invited a friend one year and he ruined the meal because he was upset that his "sweet and sour pork" was not to his liking and the fried rice was "weird". I can imagine his Yelp review of the place.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: mwk

                    I feel like a hopeless pedant mentioning this here because it's completely off topic, but sweet and sour pork (gu lou yuk 咕嚕肉) is a real non-American thing and a good Cantonese restaurant should be able to make one that doesn't suck.

                    1. re: Luther

                      Luther, isn't that exactly the point: someone who is used to, and will only tolerate standard Americanized S&SP might be unhappy with a very good Cantonese version, and give it a bad review on a venue such as Yelp (did I get that right, MWK?)

                      1. re: justbeingpolite

                        I dunno, maybe it was just a bad version.

                        1. re: justbeingpolite

                          @Just: Yes, that was my point. If I want good, american-style Chinese food, I don't usually go to Chinatown to get it. I'll go to any of a number of local take out places near my house in Quincy where they make decent versions of it.

                          He was upset because this version wasn't bright red and gooey enough and wasn't sweet enough. Also, he was really annoyed that the rice didn't come out with the pork, and he wouldn't touch the pork until he had rice to eat with it. So, by the time the rice came out, he was annoyed that the pork was cold, and had started to congeal. It was just a bad scene in general. Needless to say, he wasn't invited back.

                        2. re: Luther

                          The best versions of any Chinese sweet and sour dish tilt toward the vinegary side of the scale, not the sugary but too often the opposite is found.

                          According to Endymion Wilkinson, (“Chinese History: A Manual.” Harvard University Press; Cambridge, 2000. p. 648) gu lu rou (咕嚕肉 gū lū ròu - sweet and sour pork) was invented in Guangzhou in the 19th century to suit western tastes. There already was the existing Cantonese dish of Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs (糖酸排骨-táng suān pái gǔ) that foreigners did not like because of the bones. They did gobble up the sauce though so a new boneless version was created and given the name: gu lu rou or “complaining meat.”

                          (咕 gū is an onomatopoeia for the sound of a clucking hen or pigeon. It can also mean an empty stomach. 嚕 lū means long-winded, over elaborate or troublesome).

                          Today (古老肉 gǔ lǎo ròu ) “meat in the ancient style” is the polite form of this dish! Wilkinson is an interesting fellow – he was a young student in China during part of the Cultural Revolution; later EU Ambassador to China (1994-2001) and now at Harvard’s Fairbank Center.