Crowd-Sourced Reviews: Trust or Trash?
In his latest column, contributor Joe Sharkey dives into the world of crowd-sourced reviews and how to handle the inevitable discrepancies of taste.
“De gustibus non est disputandum” is a Latin phrase often incorrectly attributed to the ancient Romans, but which evidently originated much later. It translates as, “In matters of taste, there can be no disputes."
Well, maybe. But take a look at the millions of travelers’ assessments of restaurants and hotels on various websites’ review sections and you’ll see that there very much are disputes and sharp differences of opinion about matters of taste. Or better yet, consider the kerfuffle that a highly respected major-media restaurant critic generated when, after a typically expensive meal at a famous steakhouse in Brooklyn, he paid the check with “the unshakable sense that I’ve been scammed.”
The restaurant was Peter Luger Steak House, a culinary landmark that’s been operating in Brooklyn since 1887, four years after the Brooklyn Bridge opened. The reviewer was the New York Times’s lead restaurant critic Pete Wells, who wrote that the Peter Luger signature porterhouse steak ($229.80, but it serves more than one) was “just another steak, and far from the best New York has to offer.”
You’d have thought someone wrote that the Grand Canyon is just another hole in the ground from the general media reaction to this rather judicious skewering of a New York institution. The tabloid New York Post, not generally known for thoughtful reviewing, breathlessly rushed to the defense of Peter Luger and denounced Wells’s “brutal, zero-star” critique, which was trending on Twitter. Huff Post was also affronted, huffing about the “savage” and “poison-pen” and “ugly” takedown of this beloved institution.
For its part, the always-crowded Peter Luger Steak House merely shrugged. The general manager, David Berson, whose family founded the place, said this to NYEater.com, in a statement that had just the right touché seasoning: “We know who we are and have always been. The best steak you can eat. Not the latest kale salad.”
Defenders of Peter Luger also rushed to point out that in the crowd-sourced world, Peter Luger fares well. Yelp.com has about 6,000 reviews of the restaurant, averaging four stars out of five. Facebook has more than 4,400 Peter Luger reviews, averaging 4.7 out of 5.
Myself, because I tend to eat light when I travel, I’m no big patron of upscale steak houses. If I were, it would not be difficult to settle on good one, from the independent restaurants represented by the Great Steak Houses of North America, to those found in selective but arbitrary guides like this one naming the best in each state as rated by TheDailyMeal.com (which ranks Peter Luger as New York’s best, incidentally). And here’s always the reliably consistent quality in major chains like Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s.
Most major newspapers employ restaurant critics who are knowledgeable and reliable, like Pete Wells. But they work within geographical limits. For years, travelers have relying on crowd-sourced restaurant reviews for a wide range of destinations, like those on Facebook, Yelp and the 800-pound gorilla, TripAdvisor, which claims to have 795 million reviews of restaurants, hotels and travel services.
I routinely consult online reviews of restaurants (and hotels unknown to me) when I travel, and I always sample handfuls from the one-star rants as well as the five-star raves. You can generally separate the knowledgeable, reliable reviews from those done by patrons who don’t get out much and wouldn’t know a brioche from a bratwurst. And all of the major review sites try – with varying degrees of success -- to delete anonymous reviews that seem to come directly from a restaurant owner – or from a snarky competitor throwing shade. TripAdvisor says that of 66 million overall reviews submitted by travelers in 2018, over 1 million “fake reviews” were rejected or removed.
A recent survey of 23,000 travelers in 12 major markets commissioned by TripAdvisor indicates the importance of what TripAdvisor calls “the wisdom of the crowd.” It found that 72 percent of respondents “always or frequently” read crowd-source reviews, with “over half of respondents (55 percent) reading multiple reviews across several pages to get an overall sense of people’s opinions.”
Then, of course, there are scattershot reviews and wisecracks like those you can fish out of sites like Twitter. Occasionally, these can have at least amusement value, like a recent tweet that called the negative New York Times review of Peter Luger “the biggest New York steak house hit since Paul Castellano met his end outside Sparks.”
That was a reference to the famous assassination in 1985 of mafia boss Paul Castellano as he arrived for dinner at Sparks Steak House in midtown Manhattan, in a mob hit engineered by gangster John Gotti so that he could take over as head of the Gambino crime family.
Even as the headlines screamed about the mafia rubout, a competitor at Ben Benson’s, a now-closed steak house just seven blocks away, saw competitive opportunity in steak-house world -- and created an ad:
“Eat at Ben Benson’s,” it said, over a photo of a corpse on the pavement in front of Sparks. “It will not kill you.”
As they say, “De gustibus non est disputandum.”