Ask a Critic: Restaurant Reviews in the Social Media Age

As the food media is increasingly dominated by Yelp, Instagram and food blogs, anyone can be a food critic. But having that voice comes with a lot of responsibility. It only takes a few clicks before one good or bad review goes viral and makes or breaks a restaurant’s reputation. Any diner has the right to voice an opinion, but how do we do it responsibly and productively? We spoke with Ryan Cox, Director of Regional Marketing at Yelp (and a Yelp Elite reviewer) on the ins and outs of restaurant reviews in the age of social media.

Restaurant Reviews Daikoku Ramen
The most popular dish at Daikokuya is the Daikoku Ramen, which has their famous tonkotsu soup base, pork belly chashu, marinated boiled egg, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, and sesame seeds.

When you write your own reviews, do you have a specific format or criteria you keep in mind?

Usually I try to visit a restaurant twice to get a good feel for it. Sometimes if it’s really stellar and I just want to scream it from the rooftops, I’ll write a positive review right away. With negative reviews, I try to visit a couple times before I jot down my opinions.  

I try to give as many details in a few paragraphs as I can to paint a full picture of what someone can expect when they arrive — everything from what I ate, to parking times, to peak hours (important if people are trying to go for a 30-minute lunch break), to quality of the service. I’ll also post a bunch of photos, which are really important for people deciding where to go on the fly.

Restaurant Reviews Stella Barra Pizza Los Angeles
Pizza dough tossing at Stella Barra

Can you share some “best practices” for how reviewers and restaurant owners should engage each other productively online? 

Review sites like Yelp are great virtual comment cards for customers to share feedback. I always recommend restaurants respond to both positive and negative reviews, whether publicly or privately. One thing I tell owners to keep in mind is to watch the way you respond to reviews, because it paints a picture of the kind of business you operate. Things happen, but if the restaurant constantly goes into attack mode for honest feedback, it’s probably going to deter me from going in. On the flip side, when things do go wrong, a simple apology goes a long way. We’re all human and mistakes happen.

Are there any online interactions with restaurant owners that have left a particularly memorable impression on you?

I remember looking for a brunch spot a few years back and there was a restaurant that had a great rating, but the most recent reviews were pretty unfavorable, mostly because of service. The business owner responded to all of them and told them that he was having staffing issues, but it was fixed and that they had more hands on deck. I really loved the honesty and that he wasn’t making excuses. We had a great time and service was excellent — so he stood by his word!

Lodge Bread Los Angeles
The Vegetarian Sandwich from Lodge Bread Co.

With the growth of “democratic” review sites like Yelp and Instagram, do you think newspaper food reviews have lost their influence?

I think they’re still valuable; everyone has different tastes and preferences. Reading a variety of reviews, whether it be the New York Times, the Register or Yelp and looking at people with big Instagram followings — the important part is how you weigh all that information according to your own preferences to decide if you want to go somewhere and spend your money there.

What are your thoughts on #sponsored posts or critics getting comped dishes in hopes of a better review? As a Yelp Elite, have you ever been offered comps?

Most critics that I’ve met have always said the same thing — you always pay for your meal and go in unannounced to ensure you’re getting the real deal on service and food and not getting any special treatment. That way you’re sharing a genuine experience and you remain unbiased. I’m all about that. If you give a restaurant a heads up that you’re there to write an article, of course they’re going to go out of their way to make sure it’s the best possible experience with all the bells and whistles attached. Getting a comp in exchange for a positive review is a big no-no. In fact, that’s one of the quickest ways to lose your Elite badge on Yelp!

New York Vegan Healthy
The veggie burger from Terri has Beyond Meat, ‘queso’, lettuce, tomato, and thousand island.

What sources do you turn to for restaurant recommendations and reviews?

I primarily use Yelp for eating out. My friends first used it to keep track of places they visited. Since we’ve always liked dining out, it grew quickly within our immediate friend circle as a way to recommend places we like. In Orange County, I follow Edwin Goei and Ann Marie Panoringan (OC Weekly), Mad Hungry Woman​, and Fast Food Maven Nancy Luna (OC Register). I especially love how Fast Food Maven unearths hidden menus at everything from fast food chains to small mom-and-pop shops. LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold has some great — and diverse — lists of restaurants I may may not have ever thought of visiting. Often his top picks are places that don’t have a whole lot of reviews, which I really appreciate because it expands my dining options. His writing paints a really detailed picture of a restaurant, and you get the gist of the place in just a couple paragraphs. And I’m a fan of @100Eats on Instagram for their eye-catching photos.

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