This weekend, I attended Taste Talks, a three-day food festival in Brooklyn “exploring the culinary cutting edge for a food-obsessed generation.” Over the course of this week and next, I’ll be covering the meals and panels I attended under the headline “Taste Talks.”
To the left of Sam Sifton, the Food Editor of The New York Times sit the CEO of the curated review site Taste Savant and an Editor at Tasting Table. Ruggy Joesten of Yelp adjusts himself uncomfortably in his seat. The panel’s moderator draws the audience’s attention to him, “Ruggy, you’ve been quiet for the last five minutes.”
Ruggy laughs. He seems like a likable guy, referencing “bomb-ass” burritos and apologizing for his surfer-dude vocabulary. But here, as the New York Community Director of Yelp, he’s the lone champion of crowd-sourced restaurant reviews in opposition to a panel of professional dining savants. He references the “wisdom of the crowd” and their ability to give a voice to the “small business owner in Des Moines.” (There are a lot of references to this uneducated, unsophisticated “Des Moines” representative throughout the weekend.)
“I use Yelp,” Sam Sifton says, “For products. Product reviews do well for Patagonia jackets but they do less well for three star restaurants.” He continues, “Restaurants are culture, and culture matters. Restaurants should be treated as our city’s artistic cultural pursuits.”
But reviews no longer have the power they used to. Restaurant-owner Carlo Mirachi of Roberta’s says, “A Times review used to have the power to close a restaurant, but that doesn’t really happen anymore because people want to make their own opinions about food.”
Diners today may take the time on an hour-long commute to read a 4,000 word review, but often they need instant gratification and access to what Joesten calls the “Twitterization” of reviews. “Some people just want the quick and dirty.”
“If you’re walking down the streets of New York at 7 pm,” Jocelyn Mangan of OpenTable says, “what’s going to give you decision confidence?” Sifton, who abandoned Yelp completely after a regretful Chinese dinner in Des Moines (again with Des Moines), cites the lack of context and education in the amateur restaurant review. Mirachi agrees, “The amateur food enthusiast who has never travelled to Japan does not have the experience to be able to review a sushi restaurant stateside.”
But these amateur reviews carry weight. Last year, Yelp’s revenue grew 72%, and there’s something to be said for the consistency of reviews. “If I see one review that the roast chicken is bad, I’ll probably still try it. If I see two or three reviews of the terrible roast chicken, I’m less likely to try it,” Mirachi says. Yelp has the unique power to combine hundreds of reviews and pull from them highlights that are consistent. “If something is mentioned enough times, it becomes true,” Mangan adds.
And then there’s the mother of all reviews. “Have you even read a Michelin review??” Sam Sifton asks, referencing the review created by two French tire manufacturers over a century ago. “I mean the actual review in the Michelin guide. It’s like it’s written through Google Translate.”
Maybe it’s time that the century-old maidens of reviews release their widow’s grip. Times are changing, creating a place for both the curated and the crowd-sourced. After all, Anthony Bourdain is a huge Yelp fan.