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Yelp Ate the Food Critic

By Annie Gaus

In an age where anyone with a phone can become a restaurant reviewer instantly, chefs and restaurants are confronting an avalanche of criticism and praise.

Running a restaurant in San Francisco has never been easy, and it takes a thick skin. Just ask George Chen, who’s been at it for decades: Starting with the trendsetting Betelnut, Chen has created 16 restaurant concepts since the mid-1990s in both San Francisco and Shanghai.

Nowadays, he’s busier than ever. As founder of China Live, the epicurean multiplex in Chinatown, he’s launched a total of two restaurants, one cafe, two bars and a retail marketplace in just over a year, with a new rooftop lounge coming soon.

When he isn’t busy expanding Chinatown’s largest culinary destination, Chen is responding personally to the hundreds of Yelp reviews that pour in weekly — whether it’s a thank you, a reply to a complaint, or sometimes, a blunt rebuke of a bad review. (“This is not Panda Express!” Chen admonished one Yelper who misidentified a dish as “orange chicken.”)

“I read them passionately,” Chen says. They have right to their opinion, but it is an opinion, and it’s a two-way street.”

Chen notes that Yelp reviews can be helpful in identifying operational issues—noise levels, for example—but he isn’t shy about correcting Yelpers who broadcast factual errors, or stereotypes that Chinese food must be cheap, salty and drowned in sauce.

“One person wrote that I burned their broccoli,” Chen recalls, referring to China Live’s most popular vegetable dish: Fresh Chinese broccoli that’s shaved, brushed with tea oil, delicately charred over an open flame and sprinkled with wild mushrooms and sesame seeds. “I’m trying to change perceptions about Chinese food. If you can’t understand that I’m trying to do something different with it, just ask.”

Not every seasoned restaurateur is willing to tussle with Yelp critics in their spare time. But for anyone in San Francisco’s restaurant scene, dealing with the infinite tide of Yelp reviews is part of a new reality that touches nearly every aspect of the industry, from design and marketing to the pace of service.

“People have to be really mindful of the consumer impact of crowdsourced reviews,” says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “It seems like the culture has become more passive-aggressive, with customers taking issues to a third party instead of addressing them on site.”

Yelp says they do their part to expunge low-quality reviews, using recommendation software that hides ratings deemed fake, biased, solicited, or “unhelpful rants and raves,” according to a spokesperson. About 75 percent of reviews are approved. Whether they are reasonable or accurate is another question entirely.

“Now, you have to deal with both the random person and the established critics,” Borden says. “As with everything, there are wonderful attributes to an online platform that help you to get exposed, if you’re only depending on neighborhood traffic or the news media to cover you. On the other hand, people can judge you very unfairly for things beyond your control.”

As of 20 years ago, new restaurants were typically allowed about a month to fine-tune their presentations before the Michael Bauers of the world would arrive, typically dining at a place two or three times before releasing their official verdict to the masses. But crowdsourced reviews have rendered that grace period obsolete, leaving restaurants with little room for error before a flood of Yelpers train their taste buds and their smartphone cameras on an untested concept.

“You don’t have a chance to get your ducks lined up,” Chen adds. “If you’re not ready, it’s taken down some restaurants.”

It’s also upended long-established customs of food criticism. Combined with shrinking expense accounts across print media, professional food critics are now just one commentator in a growing cacophony of opinions.

“It’s no longer a one-voice town. A lot has been written about Michael Bauer; the reviews don’t move the needle in the way they once did,” says Josh Sens, a longtime Bay Area restaurant critic. Local media outlets have been scaling back monthly restaurant reviews, citing the changing economics and growing costs. A single outing at a pricey new restaurant runs in the hundreds of dollars, and in a time when diners can Google a restaurant and read a multitude of Yelp reviews before a professional critic gets his foot in the door, it might be harder to justify.

“Yelp has forced print media’s hand,” Sens observes. “To stay current, you have to change the rhythm.” That means fewer reviews of fine dining establishments, and shorter intervals for critiquing new restaurants. Asked if the wisdom of the crowd is an accurate reflection of a restaurant’s quality, Sens offers an analogy: “Donald Trump got elected president.”

“Granted, no one is objective in their restaurant reviews, but who knows who’s flacking for whom, who has an axe to grind, or who’s taken something personally,” Sens says. “As much as anything, my job is to make something worth reading, and I’m trying to be fair to the restaurant.”

That may not be true of the average Yelper, who bases their critique on an isolated experience, a limited set of dishes, and in most cases without any of the culinary or institutional knowledge that a professional critic brings to the table. Over time, Borden adds, savvier food entrepreneurs have adjusted to the changing landscape: Testing out concepts in a pop-up setting before opening a brick-and-mortar, for example, or driving early customers to place reviews (ideally, glowing ones).

“They do provide new opportunities to reach those who you haven’t reached on your own. A lot of restaurants are learning to work with that,” Borden adds.

Other restaurateurs, like Chen, have simply learned to embrace the haters.

“I’d rather have both good and bad than just a few good reviews,” Chen says. “That’s too vanilla. Who goes and reviews Chipotle?”

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