How often do you go to a restaurant before knowing anything about it? Like, really just wandering into a restaurant because you were walking or driving by, rather than waiting for at least two, maybe three, fervent recommendations from friends? Before you've perused the menu online? Before you've checked out the restaurant's Instagram?
Or, at least, before you've looked it up on Yelp?
Say what you want about the company's ethics as an employer, or even about the truthfulness of some Yelp reviews. (Many have speculated that restaurants come by positive reviews in various nefarious ways.) Yelp—a site where users can more or less anonymously post reviews about everything from dentists' offices and public parks to corner delis and Michelin-starred restaurants—has changed the way we eat out.
Where we once relied on local reviewers—like the L.A. Times' Jonathan Gold and the New York Times' Pete Wells and New York magazine's Adam Platt, among many others—for news about where we should eat now, we now look to Yelp. It's not that a good or bad review from a major publication can't still make or break a new restaurant, or change how we esteem one; it's that the influence once commanded by those publications has been democratized. The Michelin Guide gives Danny Meyer's restaurant Gramercy Park one star ("Cuisine of great finesse. Worth the step!"); Pete Wells gave it three this August ("Excellent"). On Yelp it's got four-and-a-half stars (an average calculated from all its 2085 reviews since 2005; five-star ratings are most common—1355 of the 2085).
As the Chicago chef-restaurateur Joncarl Lachman was quoted as saying in a 2008 Times article about the website, Yelp is "word of mouth on steroids." And as you're sifting through the (sometimes thousands of) reviews of a restaurant you are considering, you need to put your trust in someone—so we put our trust in, more often than not, Elite Yelp users.
Those who are especially committed to the project of writing reviews can be nominated by their fellow Yelp users to be "Elite," Yelp's designation of "super user." Theirs are the reviews loaded down with votes for being "funny," "cool," or "useful"; their profiles note how many years they've been considered "Elite," the years lined up, gold and shiny, like Boy Scout badges.
Elite Yelp users are doctors and IT specialists, designers and actors, data analysts and lawyers. (For this reason, and to preserve their privacy, they're almost all quoted here only by their first name or first name and last initial, as they appear in their Yelp profiles.) They're in nearly every town and city in the country, not to mention other countries, too. You've shared a subway pole with them, or stood in line behind them at the grocery store, or sidled up to a bar next to them. And they all seem to love Yelp.
But most Elites don't write reviews because they're professional reviewer-aspirant; of the Elite users I talked to, none has any dreams of making their hobby their job. (Though Peter Y. of New York has recently started writing reviews for Time Out New York "as a Timeout Tastemaker—basically their version of Yelp Elite.") The motivation is, for the most part, either personal—Jamel Oeser-Sweat of New York, for example, started writing reviews as a way to track new experiences; Matteo R., also of New York, finds review-writing relaxing—or driven by a desire to invest in the communities they call home.
And the Yelp users I spoke to joined and began writing reviews not because they particularly wanted them to be read by others, but because they wanted to know where to eat and to share their experiences with their neighbors in their home cities—and, like Mary P. of New York, as a way of "log[ging her] travels... (Aside from goofy pictures.)"
With everything saved in one place, you ultimately develop a personal scrapbook of where and what you've eaten: "Sometimes it's nice to go back and reread [a review you wrote] and you remember that moment, that nice evening out that you had," Matteo said.
The reviews happen in minutes ("Maybe 5 minutes of furious typing," said Mary) or months (Matteo has "like 30 or 40 drafts of reviews at a time"). They're written by people who love writing, and for whom Yelp is an outlet for it, as well as by people who have "no literary ambitions" (Matteo) and do it for themselves, to unwind. "Of course, you're writing reviews on the internet, so it's not that you hope that no one would read your reviews," Matteo said. "Popularity's always a nice thing. But it's secondary." The food is first.
Peter DeNat, an Elite member who began writing Yelp reviews in 2008, became a Community Manager for Yelp when he lost his banking job in the financial crash. As a Community Manager, he serves as a sort of RA for his community—Brooklyn—answering any questions Yelp users have about the site or the area, and hosting events and meet-ups for other Elite users. (These events and, by extension, Yelp itself, have even lead to romance: Of the six Elite Yelp users I talked to for this story, two married other Yelp users. One of those weddings was even officiated by another Yelp user! The other? It happened at a venue the groom found on Yelp.)
But for the most part, they're just regular Yelp users (albeit ones who tend to eat out more often than most, and ones who have written hundreds if not thousands of reviews) and regular people.
You won't find printouts of their faces tacked to back-of-house bulletin boards in restaurants all over the city, but there's a good chance you'll read about their experiences and be influenced by them before you go out to eat, just like a reviewer at a major publication. And just like a professional reviewer, many Elite users will make a point of visiting a business multiple times before writing a review. "Consistency is a tough thing in the restaurant business," Peter said, "and I feel like I have a better handle on a place after multiple visits."
One result of this is a toppling of the traditional fine-dining "star" system—the standards for reviewing are never exactly the same from one Yelp writer to the next, and the reviews are given by people who know a lot about food and wine as well as by people who know nothing except that they enjoy eating it. As Jamel, who is a lawyer by day, said, “I might give a fancy restaurant three stars and a local place five. I am judging fancy against fancy, local against local. Decent food in your neighborhood should be encouraged, critiqued, and loved.”
It's why Gramercy Tavern has only one Michelin star and yet four-and-a-half on Yelp: The former has everything to do with the formality of a historic guide and the insidery rating of the chef; the latter is for the customers—an averaged rating amassed from honest reviews written by regular people who love to eat, for people who love to eat. They do it for the Yelp community.
"I have become a 'city expert' amongst my friends and within the community," said Sophie of Boston. "People have asked me in person what I would recommend for a specific ambiance or cuisine, or asked online via Yelp compliments [a way of telling a user you enjoyed their review] or messages." And they're fully aware that their feedback has a significant effect on the chefs, restaurants, and businesses, too. For the most part, they don't abuse that power; some even see their role as highly active reviewers to stick up for the community and the businesses growing there.
"It's a common myth that Yelp is where folks go to bash businesses, but in reality it's largely about recommending places. There are actually more 5-star reviews than 1, 2 and 3-star reviews combined," said Peter, who's only written 23 one-star reviews in his 8 years as a Yelp user. (Versus 1,750 four and five-star reviews.) "I never want to bash a small business if I can help it, especially not if my criticism can't be at least a bit constructive."
The users I spoke with all take their reviewing seriously, even while having fun with it. Some, like Sophie, use self-created rubrics as a guide: "I start out with my general feelings about the place, describe the ambiance, go into individual food items that I have tried (describing each item and what I liked/disliked about it), the service, and whether I would come back." Others just recount their experiences from start to finish. Others, like Peter, like to play with form, as in this review for East Harbor Seafood Palace, a Brooklyn dim sum restaurant (or this one, which has over 600 "cool"/"useful"/"funny" votes):
The votes from other Yelp users, like any kind of positive reinforcement, keep Elite users coming back—it's no wonder that many of them are "Elite" three or five or eight years in a row. "It game-ified my experience and was encouraging," said Jamel.
Peter said something similar: "Recommending a great place helps that small business owner by bringing him more business, it helps your peers and friends find a great meal, [though] obviously it's not all selfless." The feedback from restaurant owners and other Yelp users is a major perk.
That said, it's not just nice words from other Yelp users that makes them write sometimes-daily reviews, reviews that push against the character limits of the platform, reviews that tell you not only where to go but what to order: "When you really love a place and they are doing everything right, you want to tell everyone to get over there and support them," Peter said. "I've seen too many of my favorite places close, and I want to shout it from the rooftops that you NEED to check out the cold noodles at Yun Nan Flavor Garden in Brooklyn's Chinatown, or the salt-baked potatoes at Mekelburg's, or the tuna tartare and shortrib sliders at Traif (for a few examples)." And he does. 2412 reviews and counting.
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