Food blogging has had a huge impact on the restaurant industry. In the days of traditional media, people would have to rely on published restaurant guides or the occasional review in a newspaper or magazine. Word of mouth was another source of information and a channel which was valued by restaurants because it was very effective. With the advent of social media, word of mouth has now been amplified and reaches many more people.
There is a proliferation of food blogs offering reviews and opinions. Some would say this is a bad thing and others a good thing, but the reality is they are here to stay (read this interesting article on Why Food Bloggers Are Here to Stay). Everyone now has access to reams of information and opinion on most restaurants. The difficulty is working out which information is valuable and which is less so. Amongst the content available will be some written by someone with limited experience in food and/or limited experience in writing. Some will be conservative and some will be bold, some will be thorough and others more general. Some will be biased and others not.
I’ve compiled some tips on how to get the most out of the information that is out there so that you can make good choices and spend your hard earned money wisely. After all, that should be the point of reviews, to assist you in not wasting time and money.
1. Get to know the reviewer
Not personally (although that can also help) but get to know their reviewing style. Are they prone to exaggeration? Do they focus on the negatives or do they give a balanced review? Are they easily pleased or difficult to please?
Try and get an understanding of what the reviewer likes and doesn’t like, also what things really bug them. A reviewer might be pedantic about how the waiter opens and pours the wine and if the waiter gets that wrong the review of the service may be overly critical while it might not bother you in the slightest. The reviewer may like big portions and that could affect their report on value, while you may prefer small portions.
Not sharing common preferences with a reviewer doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read their reviews, but just read them with the understanding that your experience may be different. To get to know a reviewer, spend some time reading several of their reviews, especially of restaurants you have already eaten at. Then you will pick up patterns and also see whether you agree on the places you have been to.
Knowing the reviewers background can also be of assistance. Do they have a background in writing? Are they qualified in food/wine? These things are not compulsory and in fact, are often missing but it helps you to understand what exactly they are reviewing.
2. Investigate the blog
How long has the blog been around? How many reviews are there? Does it have it’s own domain or is it just using a hosted blog platform? Is the reviewer anonymous or traceable?
The answers to these questions can tell you how seriously you should take the blog. Has the reviewer invested time and money in the blog? Are they putting their reputation on the line or hiding behind anonymity?
Is the blog focused on food or does it review wine, events, etc. You may be wanting something that is more focused on the actual food rather than the dining experience. Find one that fits what you are looking for.
Does the blog have advertising? This can be an indicator that the industry is taking the blog seriously but are the adverts creating a conflict of interests? Are restaurants advertising on the blog? This could affect the review of that particular restaurant.
3. Paid for vs free
Reviews where the reviewer arrives unannounced (books under a different name) and pays for the meal will be the closest the the normal experience of the restaurant. Reviews where this is not the case are not invalid because the reviewer can still report on the potential of the restaurant and the overall experience. In addition, when the reviewer is expected they are often provided with an opportunity to experience more and find out more about the restaurant, perhaps speaking to the chef, etc.
But what is important is that the reviewer indicates if the meal was not paid for so that you can take that into account.
4. Note the time of day
Is the reviewer having lunch, dinner or breakfast? Each of these can be a completely different experience. The vibe is different, the menu can be different and the restaurant can lose it’s appeal in the light/darkness, or it may be really unsafe at night but fine during the day.
5. Special or normal menu
Restaurants often offer specials and the experience for a special can be very different from the experience when ordering a la carte. The food can come quicker because it is pre prepared, the waiter can be less friendly because he knows he is earning less tip and the food could be lower quality in an attempt to save costs. So bear in mind whether the review was of a special or not because the normal experience could be quite different for better or worse.
6. Note the date
Reviews sit around on the internet forever and when you find it through Google, it’s not immedietly apparent that it may not be current. Most blogs will have some sort of date stamp on ach post so check when it was written and bear in mind that a lot can change in just a few months.
7. Number of visits
The unfortunate reality is that restaurants so have off days. We may want to find that unacceptable but there are very few that have not had things go wrong with a particular table at some point. Check if the reviewer has visited the restaurant multiple times and if their experience was consistent.
As we said in the previous point, things do go wrong in restaurants. Having something go wrong is less of an issue than how the restaurant/manager deals with it. Does the reviewer bring up issues with the management and report on how they responded, or does the reviewer simply report on the actual issues themselves?
9. Check the comments
Respectable blogs should have some user comments below each review (unless it’s a recent post). Make a habit of reading the comments and seeing if they agree with the review. Often the comments add important information to the review.
10. Don’t take comments as gospel
Remember that anyone can comment, the restaurant owner or the competition. So the comments may not be truthful. Also, because most sites allow anonymous comments, people feel able to say harsher things than they might normally. It’s advisable to take comments with a pinch of salt. Focus on comments that have the person’s name and are not unnecessarily emotive.
11. Check other reviews
There are many review sites out there, do a Google search and see what some of the other reviewers think. Are they all in agreement? This can help you counter the problems inherent in ‘one visit reviewing’.
12. Note how new the restaurant is
Some bloggers like to review restaurants when they have just opened. While we would like to think that if they are open they should be offering quality service and product. The reality, however, is that it takes a little while for restaurants to find their feet. A restaurant may receive negative reviews when it opens initially but within a couple of months will receive rave reviews.
Those are my 12 points. Feel free to comment on them or suggest additional points in the comments section below. Remember that reviews are not normally about helping you to decide whether or not to go to a restaurant but more about managing your expectations and assisting you to select the appropriate restaurant for the occasion. If I say a restaurant is loud, I’m not saying you should go there because it’s loud. I’m saying you shouldn’t go there for a romantic dinner but you might want to go there for a birthday celebration.
And finally, help the community by leaving a comment about your experience, even if it’s just to agree with the reviewer as it helps other people to evaluate the credibility of the review. But when you do comment, be fair and don’t make personal attacks. Remember that your comment will be there for people to read for a very long time.