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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.

                      2. I don't care that people make multiple visits before writing up a review on Yelp or Chowhound since their are usually multiple people reviewing a single place. It makes more sense if you are just one person (ie. traditional newspaper reviewer) to make multiple visits before writing up a single review otherwise judgement is being made on a single data point. Multiple reviews on public websites takes the single data point anomalies out of the equation and you can get a feel for a place after reading many reviews. So what if a single reviewer has a bone to pick, is a shill, or just went on an off night? I think most people are savvy enough to discount the highs/lows, the ignorant, and the axe grinders. I have more faith that 10 amateur reviews of a place will give me a better picture of what to expect than 1 single pro reviewer (who may or may not bring their bias into play) who went 3-4 times.

                        There is power in numbers and that power is now in the hands of the people, not just a select few professional writers.

                        1. A few points related to some things that came up:

                          @lstaff- i agree that the strength in numbers helps out, but, i do think there's a downward bias that someone is *much* more likely to post a scathing one or two star review for a bad experience than a 4 or 5 star review for a place that was really good. part of this is also the difference of what Yelp does to restaurants versus what a sophisiticated reader, such as yourself, might glean from it.

                          I'm perfectly fine weeding through bad reviews, and aggregating thoughts on my own, as are you. But, a ton of users, as backed by a study of yelp's effect on a restaurant's profitability, are really just looking for that aggregate star number, and i think that is easily adversely affected by emotional low-balling reviews based on a singular bad experience (as well as an array of other issues). if 2.5 vs. 3 stars can make or break a restaurant, i am all for any guideline that encourages more thoughtful reviews.

                          i should note here that that also puts in contrast, say, a chowhound post asking for feedback on a particular restaurant- there's no reduction of everyone's thoughts to a star rating, so we all have to take the approach of reading and sorting. this is why i'm way more ok with people's quick, one time reactions to a restaurant on here than i would be on yelp (related, posts asking about restos tend to get much more specific feedback on good versus bad dishes, which i generally think is a much more useful metric than trying to evaluate a place as a whole.

                          @mwk in spirit i agree with the points of multiple people in a party, knowing off vs. on night, but of course... doesn't everyone who posts a review feel this way? certainly i don't think someone posts a bad review thinking "i know i'm unqualified to tell if this was a one time thing or systemic, but lets one star it anyway! :). so i try to admit my own bias that while i like to think i can glean more off one visit than the average bear... everyone thinks that, and yet we still have reviews that are clearly a bit uninformed/biased/not thought through (i imagine there are plenty of reviews people write in the heat of the moment that if they took time to review they'd adjust).

                          @the peach farm discussion- i'll admit i haven't been here, but i believe that peach farm is best known for its seafood right? so besides the issue of whether it is bad, or just not to what you envisioned the dish should taste like ahead of time... this is a bit of an analogue to the "i'm a vegetarian reviewing a burger joint"- its great to know if that joint has a decent veg. offering, and on CH, works just fine... but when that style of thinking gets converted into a (business affecting) 1-2 star review, it becomes problematic.

                          1. I also will add that I do use both Yelp and Chowhound when I'm looking for ideas for new places to eat. But, I understand the differences in the populations that post in each place.

                            I feel that Chowhound generally has a higher percentage of people who are knowledgeable about food and dining than Yelp does. People such as MCSlim, who obviously knows whereof he speaks.

                            However, I've been steered to more than a few excellent restaurant recommendations from Yelp as well. There are a few keys to using it successfully:

                            1. There's "safety in numbers". If a particular restaurant has 150 reviews on Yelp, and the star average is still 3+, and the preponderance of reviews are good, that's a good recommendation for me. If there is a place with only 5 reviews and three are good and two are bad, I can't make a call one way or the other. If there is a disgruntled employee or someone with a grudge writing a bad review, it's usually drowned out by the other 140 fair reviews. I especially am very suspicious of any restaurant with 1 or 2 reviews, both scathing. That sets off alarm bells for me. Also, if there is a long string of fabulous reviews, followed by a shorter string of horrible reviews in a row, that is a signal that something is fishy.

                            2. The profile of the reviewer: If you look at the reviewer's profile and find that he's only made one review and it's a nasty review of a particular restaurant, that's a big warning sign that it's not up to snuff.

                            3. Age of the reviews: You want to see recent reviews, ones that are less than 6 months old if possible. Reviews from 2010 are just not reliable. I usually don't bother to read any review older than a few months. If I can't find a large enough grouping of recent reviews, then I can't use them to make a valid choice. Restaurants change, management changes, menus change. Judging a place from something that may have happened 3 years ago is not useful.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: mwk

                              The "safety in numbers" theory is also how I utilize Yelp reviews. With a few notable exceptions, if a restaurant has hundreds of excellent reviews and few bad ones, they are likely doing something worthwhile. Similarly, when there are hundreds of bad ones and few if any good ones, chances are pretty good it is to be avoided.

                              I also like Yelp when I am in an unfamilar location and for whatever reason don't have time to do proper research either on Chowhound or elsewhere.

                            2. I think the tips section of MC Slim JB's blog post is really valuable. I personally feel its a shame that good writers feel the need to put provocative headings on their blog articles (you no longer have an editor around to force one on you, so pick something informative instead).

                              What made me stop reading the article is that it misses what brings me back to chowhound. Ultimately its the enthusiasm of participants (including MC and the OC), not necessarily their experience or credentials, not how correct their post is overall, or even if they were the first to post on a new find. Someone went out in search of 'deliciousness,' found it, and decided to share that with us. There have been posts about the "chowhound motto" and I feel that Limster says it best, but spend less time triangulating the value of a review and just try a new restaurant, ideally with good company so you can have an enjoyable meal even if the food is "merely okay."

                              As someone who takes Brazilian food seriously, I enjoy the posts from people who just discovered the food and shared their findings based on just one meal. In fact when earnest, some of them are better than professional reviews which have done some research (wikipedia) and multiple visits to one restaurant, but do not have much experience with that cusine. I also can't visit every restaurant 3-4 times, but love to share my personal feelings and get other's thoughts, particularly about a cusine where I don't have as much technical knowledge.

                              I also think the Boston board could use more voices and should welcome new posters better (although do get frustrated with shills), but having a sticky which makes it all too complicated while denigrating Yelp posters (as opposed to Yelp itself) and somehow bringing up Dave Andelman misses this the point. This is supposed to be about deliciousness and ultimately enjoyment.

                              If someone can find deliciousness and enjoy discussing it on Yelp, with their barber that is a great thing. (If they focus only on trophy hunting -- "first to review," "first to tear apart" or chest bumping not so good, but let the Yelp community deal with that). And if someone can join chowhound as a total newbie who tried soup dumplings for the first time and then goes on to setting up a chowdown or regular meals with other chowhounds, becoming a regular poster, we now have a fresh voice to follow. So I do think that MC Slim JB has some very good suggestions about writing, but they are his opinions on his blog, and should not be held as requirements for participating in chowhound or the chowhound Boston Board.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: itaunas

                                It's a point I've made before, but I'm not trying to suggest that one needs to be an expert to be a useful reviewer, nor arguing against the enthusiasm of newcomers to any cuisine. At one time or another, that enthusiastic ignoramus was me on pretty much everything (and still is on some things), unless you count the "Mid-Century Good Housekeeping Magazine School of Cooking from Cans and Boxed Casseroles" that I grew up on.

                                I am railing against a couple of things. One is pretensions to authority and expertise that are clearly unearned. I'd say that no one can credibly assert either; only your readers can invest that in you, and you earn it only by repeatedly convincing them that you deserve it. Dave Andelman is an example of someone who asserts a kind of authority that is clearly meaningless ("Trust me because I dine out a lot, never mind that I have terrible taste"), but he also belongs in the category of reviewers with a hidden agenda, the quintessential devious shill.

                                My other big target is the kind of glib criticism that clearly reflects ignorance about the cuisine, the chef's intentions, how restaurants work, etc. When it's obvious that you don't even know how little you know, and you're slagging a place based on erroneous assumptions, I'm going to find your review unfair and possibly harmful. And that describes a lot of amateur reviews out there (particularly on Yelp), which is why the industry finds them so frustrating.

                                I've long defended amateur reviewers, especially here, but maintain that you have to pick your spots, be wary of anyone you haven't taken the trouble to vet for trustworthiness. If not specific expertise or taste I admire, I may value your curiosity, dedication to Hounding, willingness to give fallen places another try, etc. But I will only come to that conclusion once you've posted enough to articulate a consistent point of view.


                              2. Great discussion.

                                One of the many things that irritates me with regards to reviewers on places like Yelp is when the author of the review has ordered food to be delivered but has never been to the restaurant. The food is 20 minutes late, cold, not exactly as ordered, missing something or the driver's English is poor. A scathing review of the restaurant results.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: mvi

                                  As long as they state that its delivery that can be very valuable info. The reviews aren't just for the food but the establishment as a whole. If their delivery sucks that's good to know

                                  1. re: jgg13

                                    I value and respect your opinion, but so many restaurant reviews of this nature are based solely on the delivery. To give a restaurant a horrible review based on one experience with the delivery, having never set foot in the establishment itself, seems flawed to someone like me who likes to eat out. I take in the experience from beginning to end: the ambiance, the welcome- or lack thereof- the staff, the timing, the lighting, the noise, changes and adaptations in the menu, etc. There are many Yelp reviews of places that use Foodler to deliver, for example, that say the reviewers loved the food, but the driver was late so they are giving the place one or two stars. It's just not the full picture for someone like me. Yes, it's a factor, but when I see a poor review slamming a restaurant based on the delivery alone while admitting the food was good, I do not place any value on it. Perhaps this is a topic for further discussion somewhere!

                                    1. re: mvi

                                      Seems as though slamming a place based on Delivery would be unfair for their average.

                                      1. re: mvi

                                        Eh, it means I certainly wouldn't order from there via Foodler. Which is useful info for me. I don't ever really look at the averages, though, but read the reviews.

                                        1. re: antimony

                                          I don't look at aggregate ratings either. I read through a bunch of reviews to get a sense of things. If I want to know something in particular (on Yelp, specifically) I'll search reviews for a key phrase.

                                        2. re: mvi

                                          And that's why I said "As long as they state that its delivery". If you read the review and they say the food was great but the delivery sucked and you don't care about the latter, well, you got the info you needed (i.e. the food was good). Not sure why it'd matter otherwise. This is no different than "the food was awesome but the space is horribly loud" or some other complaint - you say yourself that you "take in the experience from beginning to end", so all of those factors should be valuable.

                                          Now, if they said "1 star, this was terrible!" but the reason was the delivery and they didn't say that - then I'd agree with you.

                                          And in the end, that's the crux of the matter. Most reviews suck because they don't properly state what it is exactly that drives their opinion. Instead, many reviews are overly simplistic ("This sucks!"), too focused on personal stories ("I was there with Joe F and Nancy Q, and you know how Nancy is with her s'mores!") or simply not detailed enough to get a sense for what exactly it is that they're praising/panning.

                                    2. I enjoyed this article and agree with much of it (perhaps besides number of times to visit although if someone else was paying you wouldn't have to twist my arm to go back to a pricey place after a bad experience)

                                      My problem with a lot of amateur reviews (non-blog) is they are simply too hyperbolic: everything is either the best or the worst. As a coffee-geek I love reading the yelp reviews for great coffee places, they're completely polar and very funny. It's always "Expertly pulled espresso from great beans and great steamed milk with friendly staff - five stars" or it's "I sat down in this place for 20 minutes and someone came up to me and said I had to order something if I wanted to sit. I asked why and they said "because we're not a library." So I left this stupid place cuz it SUCKS -1star.

                                      Laughs aside, I do think overall trends say something. If a place has 800 reviews and averages 4.5 stars, it's probably worth checking out if you're interested in the place already. A lot can also be gleaned from the vernacular and descriptions of the poster, which makes it easy personally filter unhelpful reviews.

                                      My complaint with bloggers and what I would call semi-professional reviewers is the lack of quality criticism. Pointing out where a restaurant excels is the most important thing but I hate when this level of critic is too concerned with their reputation to put the critique in critic. Only pointing out the good things annoys me; no restaurant is perfect and I don't expect them to be but more can be learned from how they react to mistakes or where their weak points are.

                                      Final wish, that everyone who writes reviews would talk more about atmosphere and service. Do I love hole in the walls with great good who lack both? Yes, but for the majority of the places they play into the overall experience and isn't usually addressed.