tony review piece

How useful are restaurant review sites?

There are no end of review sites and guides designed to help you choose the right restaurant. But how useful are they? Here is Tony Naylor’s guide to the guides…

A significant section of the restaurant industry harbours a simmering resentment towards TripAdvisor which frequently boils over into frothing hatred. Little wonder. Chefs who’ve spent their lives creating exceptional food now find themselves at the mercy of citizen reviewers who think Gloucester Old Spot is a skin complaint and gazpacho plays for Barcelona.

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Many TripAdvisor users don’t seem to care about food at all. Instead, the site is awash with angry, entitled berks for whom food is a footnote amid bizarre, OTT complaints about minor draughts, uncomfortable seats, dim lighting, wonky soap dispensers and waiters who, rather than grovelling like 17th-century scullery maids, have the temerity to crack a joke or two.

But, like a professor of Old English, if you closely analyse this often mystifying text, TripAdvisor can be enlightening.

Ignore the raw data of its rankings and filter out the somewhat more questionable feedback (“We asked for a Peppa Pig birthday cake, but this looked more like a cow! I was disgusted. My daughter was crying. We couldn’t even eat it!!!”), and you can glean useful info. TripAdvisor is particularly good if you’re trawling for places – tiny ethnic restaurants; takeaways and cafés; traditional pubs serving non-gastro food – that don’t advertise and that are ignored by other guides. If you want to find Coventry’s best kebab (and one day you might), turn to TripAdvisor.

Like a younger, hipper TripAdvisor, lots of US travellers and Asian students appear to use Yelp. You want sound advice on Korean in Cambridge
or Malaysian in Milton Keynes? Then, while the usual crowd-sourced caveats apply, Yelp is the place to find it.

Think of professional newspaper critics as highly intelligent TripAdvisor contributors. On TripAdvisor, you have to sift the reviews to find users who share your criteria for judging restaurants. Likewise you must weigh up a critic’s personality, their foibles, their taste in restaurants, in order to decide how useful their recommendations will be to you. Most critics can tell technically good food from bad, but it’s the critic with whom you share a worldview, the critic with whom you’d like to have dinner who’s likely to direct you to a venue that you’ll love.

For instance, I could never entirely trust AA Gill’s opinion. That he calls his partner ‘The Blonde’ suggests we’re not simpatico in so many ways.

As for Giles Coren, I can never get a handle on what he really loves (other than himself). Jay Rayner I like, for his greed, but beyond a certain point his Captain Caveman cravings for charred meat give me indigestion and his fascination with hot Szechuan food leaves me cold. He also seems a little out of his comfort zone in pubs and readily admits: “I don’t much like beer”. I suspect he and I like very different nights out.

Marina O’Loughlin, though, I could rub along with. I love her curiosity about new things, her wariness of trends, her quietly steely analysis, her loathing of flimsy concepts and pompous, formal restaurants. Plus, her reviews often suggest the night really starts after she pays the bill (ending somewhere dark and boozy). Count me in.

I also love Grace Dent’s tone of hard-wired northern scepticism. I live in Manchester but still read her London Evening Standard reviews.

[Tony, this is awkward… What about our Table Hopping guide? – Ed]

The tyre manufacturer Michelin is working hard to reposition itself as an open, democratic 21st-century organisation (check those hep cats @MichelinGuideUK). But despite this new, chill attitude – giving a few pubs stars; insisting it isn’t impressed by stiff service and thick table linens – Michelin remains primarily of use as a guide to the airless, uptight, tweezered-perfection of international fine dining. Even then, its opinions are often questionable. The Michelin Guide itself is a flat, impersonal read. Its short, staccato listings are smattered with bewildering icons and often tell you more about the setting than the food. It’s an excellent cure for insomnia, though.

I see The Good Food Guide as a middle-aged auntie or uncle – a fun older relation who likes a long, three-bottle lunch and who knows their onions vis-à-vis food, without necessarily being hip to the latest pop-up London trends. The GFG is great on, say, rural pubs that serve serious food, but like all the major guides (blame lead-times, culture, audience), its coverage of stuff outside the UK restaurant mainstream – street food, budget eats, ethnic food etc. – is patchy. In that regard, olive [Finally! – Ed] and Twitter are far more useful. That said, The GFG write-ups tend to capture a venue’s feel while conveying a genuine enthusiasm for the pleasure of eating.

Call it historic prejudice on my part, or put it down to poor marketing by the AA, but unlike Michelin and The Good Food Guide, I struggle to identify (unlike the AA’s hotel star ratings) an area of the restaurant sphere on which it has a uniquely strong insight. I’d also question whether all of its one-rosette restaurants – while they may stand out locally and offer a certain technical competence – deserve national recognition. In my experience, some are very dull indeed. When researching where to eat, I note one AA rosette in the way I do other fringe indicators of potentially good food, such as a sharply designed website or a confident menu.

The conclusion? Take counsel from guides and critics, but remember they’re not founts of all knowledge. Ultimately you have to trust your own instincts.

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