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The Value of Yelp and Crowd-Sourcing Generally


My friend Ian McNulty wrote the other day about the recent Yelp “Top 100 Places to Eat in 2020.”

He pointed out that there are no Louisiana restaurants on the list yet there is a restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that serves some food that “takes inspiration” from New Orleans and South Louisiana.

The restaurant in question has a website that is about as pretentious as any I’ve seen for restaurants in Brooklyn; Portland; Austin; or, dare I say it, Bywater. I’m sure the food is good. They have a quote from Ella Brennan, and that’s nice. Why would anyone want to criticize a restaurant in Idaho that is serving food inspired by our local cuisine?

I sure don’t, and I’m glad they are getting some attention. I suspect that if I am ever in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, I’d stop in and at least have a Sazerac. Ordinarily I like to sample the “indigenous” cuisine of places I visit, but…

So, I have no problem with any of the restaurants on the Yelp 100 list, as far as I know (I can’t be bothered to read the whole list). My problem is with the underlying idea of Yelp, and this is where I’m going to annoy some of you. Because Yelp, when used for this sort of thing, is a joke.

There is a good idea behind Yelp and websites of a similar nature. It’s a wonderful idea to give everyone the opportunity to comment on restaurants and crowd-source reviews and so forth. The problem is that many people who write Yelp reviews are idiots who wouldn’t know a good meal if it walked up behind them and slapped them in the back of the head.

You and I can read a Yelp “review” about a restaurant and dismiss the obvious morons, but when you aggregate them, even allowing for some editing by the folks who run the website, you end up with a top 100 list that doesn’t include any New Orleans restaurants and moreover includes restaurants in Idaho and Portland that serve New Orleans food.

Here are the current “top 10” restaurants in New Orleans according to Yelp:

  1. Café Amelie
  2. Cochon
  3. Galliano Restaurant
  4. Luke
  5. The Avenue Pub
  6. Blue Giant
  7. Oceana Grill
  8. ACME Oyster House
  9. Trenasse
  10. Jacques-Imo’s Café

Some of those restaurants are excellent, and Cochon, at least, might rate in my top 10 as well. I dig ACME, and Luke, and the Avenue Pub is a great place to get a beer. I like Trenasse, too, and I’m optimistic that Blue Giant is going to be good, but I’m not so optimistic about the place that I think it’s going to be in the top 10 restaurants in town.

I don’t want to be too harsh about the rest of that list, but Oceana Grill? Café Amelie? I will confess it’s been quite a while since I’ve visited either one, but there’s a reason for that. Life is too short.

So this is what you get when you “crowd-source” restaurant ratings. It’s a great idea in theory – it’s a way to take power away from the elite food writers who want to dictate your dining tastes and give that power back to the people. The problem is that websites like Yelp that “crowd-source” reviews are only as good as the crowd from which they source the reviews. I would suggest, based on both their “top 100” restaurants in the country and their “top 10” restaurants in New Orleans that the crowd being sourced may not be composed of the best and brightest minds where food is concerned.

Democracy is just fantastic until you decide that you are going to hold a vote to determine who will fly a plane and the candidates don’t include a pilot.

You may be thinking, “Well, aren’t you sensitive to crowd-sourced reviews, Mr. Food Writer Person?” And I understand that sentiment, except that I don’t write reviews as such and I could give two figs whether you trust Yelp or not. I have no skin in this game except to the extent that I would prefer good restaurants to succeed and bad restaurants to fail.

That said, I do know more about food than 96 percent of the general population because I am moderately clever and I have devoted a great deal of my attention over the last 30 years to the subject. You may very well disagree with my opinion, but you will rarely disagree with it on the basis that I am uninformed on the topic.

There is value in hearing a wide range of opinions about anything, and that’s certainly true of restaurants. I can ask friends about their experiences at restaurants, but I know my friends and can put their opinions in context. Maybe Fred doesn’t like seafood, or Betty can’t stand food that combines sweet and savory flavors. When I read a review on Yelp or similar websites, I don’t have that context, and while I can spend hours looking into the other reviews made by a particular commenter, that’s a lot more time than I’m willing to spend to verify that a review posted by “Joeb1222420” wasn’t an anomaly.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the “Yelp 100” list is bullshit, and so is the Yelp “top 10” list in New Orleans. By all means check out Yelp reviews of local restaurants, but do remember that the people writing those reviews aren’t necessarily doing so from a position of wisdom.



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