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Calibrating Yelp reviews for Manhattan/NYC

I live in Portland, OR, and have learned through experience how to calibrate Yelp overall star ratings and specific reviews to extract meaningful and helpful information from them, especially for smaller places that don't get the attention of local food blogs.

I'm wondering if there are some rules of thumb for how Yelp ratings in Manhattan are best interpreted by someone with what I might call "Chowhound sensibilities" -- because sometimes, a quick check of Yelp is all one has time for.

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  1. if it's a new-ish place, i tend to lop off all the top and bottom reviews -- experience dictates the ubiquity of shills and anti-shills (read: friends and family of direct competitors). after that, i believe you have to carefully read these things, as opposed to glancing at stars qua stars.

    if there's a consensus that a particular dish is heavenly (or hellish) and that's a dish you are intrigued by, go for it. but as far as pure numerics, it's kinda like glancing at rotten tomatoes and saying 'oh, movie A got a 78, movie B got a 64' without considering who's writing, what kind of movie it is and so on.

    1 Reply
    1. re: debinqueens

      I agree with all that.

      It also helps to validate individual posters by checking some of their other recent reviews. FWIW I do that with CH posters as well if I don't know them. It's not like we all passed a tough entrance exam when we got our CH accounts. Credibility isn't automatic.

    2. Yelp is a fantastic resource for finding an address or phone number or looking at photos of various dishes. the ratings can't be trusted at all.

      2 Replies
      1. re: coasts

        I like it also to find accurate hours and a link to the web site, or if something is closed/moved/under renovations.

        1. re: kathryn

          Or if somewhere takes credit cards or not.

      2. I always end up reading the actual reviews themselves.

        I actually find it very difficult to find a restaurant in Manhattan that hasn't been written up by at least one local food blog or publication between Serious Eats: NY, Time Out NY, New York Magazine / Grub Street, Village Voice's Fork in the Road blog, the NY Times, the New Yorker, New York Post, New York Press, Eater, Michelin, Bloomberg, Midtown Lunch, Gothamist, Gotham Magazine...

        1. I use yelp for the info and photos, the reviews i take with a grain of salt and note what the consensus is for favorites or serious service issues that sound legit and non-whiney.

          1. Personally I never rely on/trust yelp for pretty much the same reasons I don't rely on/trust zagat's. Go to almost any of the legitimate reviews kathryn pointed out for your info (or ask here because we all know what we're talking about ; ) ).

            1. Thanks for all the responses, they are all pretty much in line with how I already use Yelp at home and sort of indicate that Yelpers are universal.

              Here's what prompted my question: Fatty 'Cue has been on my radar for the last couple of visits -- I thought that it was highly regarded on CH and elsewhere -- but I was poking around Yelp and saw that the West Village location had 3 stars over 200 reviews, which struck me as surprisingly (and perhaps meaningfully) low for Yelp for that many reviews. I started digging through the reviews to see what was weighing them down and it seemed that portion size was a common theme. For some reason, that struck me as a more "Portland" complaint than a "Manhattan" complaint, and in general, it made me wonder if there are distinct biases in the two cities.

              8 Replies
              1. re: jeff_pdx

                A big fat MEH on fatty cue, I ate at the BK location years ago and the pricing was ridiculous for what you get. A quarter of a small cucumber sliced and tossed in sesame oil and placed in a tiny white cup for $5. Honestly I don't remember what the exact price was but EVERYTHING was a ripoff, $12 for one small lamb chop on a plate. People generally don't complain about portions unless they're ridiculously small, especially since we're talking about bbq.

                1. re: jeff_pdx

                  Fatty Cue has gone through some ups and downs, ratings wise. Look for the most current.

                  Otherwise, don't trust the cupcake reviews, or Mexican food reviews, and don't underestimate the flowery prose complaining about noise, or NYU kids.

                  1. re: jeff_pdx

                    Interesting that you mention Fatty Cue, and the complaints about small portions. My partner and I always say we need to get more people to go there with us so we can try a number of dishes without ordering too much food for the 2 of us because the portions are so large, but the cost of dinner is so reasonable that it really doesn't matter if we don't finish it all. Obviously I don't understand how anyone could call these portions small.

                    Some of the complaints remind me of an old joke: "The food is terrible, and the portions are so small".

                    1. re: rrems

                      Agreed, rrems. I quite like Fatty Cue and find that it's one of the few places where two people can have a nice meal for less than $100.

                      1. re: rrems

                        I'm curious if the portion sizes have changed since they opened? Did you by chance go to the Brooklyn location?

                        1. re: Pookipichu

                          No, I've only ever eaten at the West Village location.

                          1. re: loratliff

                            From your and rrems reviews, I'm assuming their portions and pricing have changed for the better. At least their menu has changed completely, they used to sell their leftover fat drippings paired with toast. I think it was $4 for a little bit of bread and... left-over fat drippings.

                      2. Chowhound is a much better resource - fewer reviews, but far more knowledgeable reviewers. If you want the "everyman" opinion, look at Yelp. If you want the opinion of people who are passionate about food, look here. Sounds snobby but everyone's got their priorities...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: hungrycomposer

                          The best CHs are far better than the best Yelpers. More knowledgeable. Far less interested in what's trendy. That's why CH is my preferred resource.

                          OTOH I see plenty of whacky stuff here. As I said earlier, it's not like there's a tough entrance exam you have to pass to get a CH account. Anyone can join and start posting away. Over time you learn who the reliable people are.

                        2. I post my reports on both CH and Yelp. When I read Yelp, I discount anyone who has a single post (especially about a new place). In addition to restaurants, I use Yelp for hotel searches (in addition to Trip Advisor) and other services/stores.

                          1. I always look at the negative reviews first and then filter based on common sense.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Shirang

                              Same here. I look for patterns relevant to me.

                              If I've decided to go to a place, that's when I sift through the positive reviews looking for popular dishes.
                              I often find the pictures more helpful.

                              1. re: sugartoof

                                I'm a big fan of the "menu" section with the photos next to that menu item too...

                            2. I immediately discount every single five-star and one-star review, as 98% of them are complete overreactions. There are people who give five stars to a hot dog stand, and others who give one star to a restaurant because there was a line at the bathroom. If there was some way to filter out all of them and just get an average score from the 2-4 star lot, it would be lovely.

                              I also tend to ignore early reviews, as they're often full of shills and/or competitors dissing them.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: sgordon

                                "I immediately discount every single five-star and one-star review, as 98% of them are complete overreactions."

                                Exactly. I especially love the ones that give a 1 star without bothering to try the food.

                                What I look for in a credible review is balance.

                                1. re: Bob Martinez

                                  I remember a couple of years ago some hubbub over a five-star review where the reviewer - admittedly - hadn't tried the food either. She was just so over-the-moon about how nice the reservationist was she thought it deserved five stars.

                                  It was that place that opened and closed really quickly a few years ago, where the chef was like a neurobiologist who was replacing all the fats with some kind of seaweed gelatin or something. What was that place? It was like the "Heaven's Gate" of NYC restaurants.

                                  1. re: sgordon

                                    Romera. Ha! It was on Deathwatch from the day it opened.

                                2. The main problem with Yelp ratings is that there is no equivalency, i.e., different restaurants have different constituencies, and as long as a restaurant satisfies its constituency it will have a high absolute rating. For example take two Manhattan Chinese restaurants, Hakkasan and Joe's Shanghai. Hakkasan is Manhattan's best Chinese restaurant (albeit expensive) and its sister restaurant in Beverly Hills is one of the better Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles. On the other hand, Joe's Shanghai in Manhattan Chinatown is a decent restaurant but wouldn't make the top 300 Chinese restaurants if it was in Los Angeles. Yet, Joe's Shanghai has a higher Yelp rating than Hakkasan. While this is a problem with Yelp in general, it's probably exacerbated in Manhattan with the wide number and variety of restaurants you can find.

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: Chandavkl

                                    That's often due to sample size. Joe's Shanghai has been around longer, and has a different niche that earned them 2,000 more reviews.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      Yes, but I consider Joe's 4 star rating to be highly dubious.

                                      1. re: Chandavkl

                                        I don't find the stars have much meaning.

                                        Yelp was also known to throttle/hide/manipulate reviews. Does anyone really regard the ratings system as accurate? I doubt it.

                                        1. re: sugartoof

                                          Unfortunately, I know "foodies" that do.

                                    2. re: Chandavkl

                                      Yelp ratings are not really meant to be ranked like Trip Advisor. The biggest mistake a tourist can make anywhere in the world pretty much is look at TA rankings and to a lesser extent any Yelp rankings. For the most part I think Yelp users/readers are smarter than that and wont rank something higher just because its ratings is higher, especially if the two establishments are not in the same class.
                                      With that said, anything less than 3.5 stars will get your attention. Regardless of how reliable the CH source is, if theres some sort of negative recent consensus with specifics (e.g. Steak was severely overcooked, shrimp was not fresh), its hard to ignore