Before heading to a music festival in Montreal recently, I looked for published restaurant reviews and made a list of interesting places to try. And naturally, I found some great ideas in a local alt-weekly paper called Cult. But trying to get in and out of a trendy or off-the-beaten path restaurant while sticking to the music festival schedule wasn’t always easy.
To make a couple quick dining decisions on the fly, I turned to location-based, user-generated content apps like Yelp, UrbanSpoon and Open Table. Most of the restaurants I found had huge numbers of reviews, and my experiences at those spots roughly matched the average rating. In short, the apps were fairly useful — in a big city.
But do they paint a fair picture for diners in a small- to medium-sized city like Columbia? I asked Saluda’s executive chef Blake Faries and Baan Sawan chef and managing partner Alex Suaudom du Monde for their opinions on crowd-sourced restaurant review services. Each had plenty to say.
“If I go to a different city, and there are 300 reviews of a restaurant and they’re trending a certain way, I feel OK about relying on them,” Suaudom du Monde concedes. User-generated reviews of his own restaurant, though, invoke a more passionate response.
“The stuff I have read online still reminds me that there is a very real sentiment out there that can be distilled in one comment I read a long time ago: ‘pricey for Asian food,’” says Suaudom du Monde.
Suaudom du Monde deadpans a casual Jerry Seinfeld impression: “Who are these people? Think about everything that goes into writing those few words. I fight that every time I send a plate out.”
Among the user-generated apps and websites available, Faries sees a big difference in the tone of his restaurant’s reviews, depending on which service diners use.
“Overall, we have mostly good reviews, and we’ve worked hard for that,” says Faries. “But Open Table diners seem to have planned ahead more, and ultimately have a more enjoyable experience.”
As for Yelp users, Faries puts it a little a more bluntly: “There are still a lot of hateful people out there.”
And he might be on to something in noticing the difference in tone. Open Table, by nature of requiring a real email address and phone number to secure a reservation as well as a name that you’ll answer to when you walk into the lobby, verifies its user base. On the other hand, a dubiously named Saluda’s diner who goes by the name Professor Chaos on UrbanSpoon left an overall positive review last year, but threw in an overheard account of another table near him not getting a steak at the right temperature.
Faries takes it in stride.
“Nobody’s perfect,” he says. “Every now and then a steak might not come out at the temperature a customer requests, but we do our best to maintain a good word of mouth reputation.”
And he’s quick to close ranks with his colleagues, too.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the best chefs and best kitchens in this town,” says Faries. “And when I see some of those guys getting slammed online, it really pisses me off.”
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