// Written by MARGEAUX PERKINS //
A few weeks ago, I went on a Groupon date with my boyfriend. This particular Groupon was a $40.00 dinner for $20.00 at Raj Darbar, a low-key Indian restaurant in Lincoln Park. The Groupon was a gift from a friend who knew of my extensive adoration of Indian food and, trusting my friend’s judgement when she said it was her favorite Indian restaurant in Chicago, I was ecstatic that I would soon be enjoying delicious (and free!) Indian food.
Though I’m currently not a Yelp account holder, I frequent the site in search of new restaurants, restaurants in unfamiliar areas to which I’m traveling, menus, and other information about restaurants in which I’m interested. The latter was the reason why I was searching for Raj Darbar on Yelp.
For some unknown reason Raj Darbar’s website doesn’t work, and partially to get myself excited about the food and partially to plan out how to get the most out of our Groupon, I found the Yelp page for the restaurant. I was searching the various culinary options users had posted on the site. I wasn’t even concerned with the reviews until my boyfriend inquired if they were BYOB. As I combed through reviews, hoping to see mention of their killer cocktails or their wide variety of beers, I found that many people hated this restaurant. Overall the restaurant received a lukewarm three stars. One two-star reviewer wrote, “Bleh. I don’t get how this is a Michelin Gourmand restaurant.” Another called out a neighboring restaurant in their review, “Came here to use a Groupon and was a little sad that it wasn’t for its neighbor, Tandoor, which I enjoyed so much the first time.”
Some more specific reviews complained of the service. One user cited that their water wasn’t filled up as often as they would’ve liked, while others called out the food, complaining that it was sub-par. A one sentence reviewer who gave the restaurant two-stars confessed, “Nothing special about this place. I don’t even remember what everything tasted like and that says it all.” Obviously after reading scathing review after scathing review, I was doubting my friend’s taste in food and whether I wanted to go a restaurant that was that bad at all. Alas, free food is free food and my boyfriend and I braved the cold and took the Brown Line north.
We arrived earlier than our reservation to find the restaurant was spacious, the wait staff was quite large, and the tables were only one-fourth full. We were seated immediately and water was delivered promptly and re-filled anytime it dipped below the halfway point. We ordered an appetizer, Vegetable Samosas, which arrived immediately and was piping hot and the best samosa I’ve ever had. The main course arrived as soon as we finished our appetizer and was delicious, filling, and contained enough food to take home. The staff was incredibly kind and courteous. We encountered no problems even as the dinner rush filled the restaurant to the brim. Why had so many people given the restaurant such terrible reviews?
I pondered whether I wanted to make a Yelp account just to bash the haters and tell the truth that the restaurant deserved five stars. I decided instead to go through the reviews of other restaurants I’d visited and loved to see how poorly they were reviewed. At the end of my search, I discovered five out of ten restaurants in which I’d had delicious food, wonderful service, and a warm atmosphere received poor reviews on Yelp. The problem wouldn’t be solved by making a Yelp account and writing good reviews, I decided, because people look for the bad reviews even if there are more good reviews. People would rather listen to one asshole complain that his water was refilled only five, not seven, times than someone who actually took the time to write an eloquent review about their good experience. I thought it better to educate people in the reading of Yelp reviews, to teach them what to look for, what to ignore, and how to navigate the mean, treacherous world of restaurant reviews.
I’ll use the example of Cholie’s Pizza, a delicious little restaurant on 53rd and Cornell. The first step is to understand what kind of restaurant to which you’re going. Cholie’s, as I’ve come to understand and love, is a tiny place with three employees that serves greasy, artery-clogging, drunk/hangover food. The hispanic woman who runs the place is the sweetest person you’ll ever meet in your life, though the interior of restaurant itself is slightly scary-looking. I understand that Cholie’s is not a place to go when you’re trying to impress a date, when you want to eat a salad, or when you want to show your parents the best of Hyde Park. Cholie’s is the place to go when you’re so hungry you can barely walk and you’re dying for a slice of cheesy, greasy, cheap pizza with a giant side of cheese fries all for under $7.00. With that in mind, this isn’t a five-star joint for business lunches, you can better understand the reviews. What people think when writing a review for Yelp is that they need to place this restaurant in the broad spectrum of other restaurants they’ve visited. Really, they need to write the review for what the restaurant really is. It’s OK to compare the restaurant, but compare it only to other restaurants of the same kind. If a review of a restaurant says, “This place is nothing like Alinea!” don’t trust it. For instance, one Cholie’s reviewer wrote, “Maybe I’m being overly critical in giving Cholie’s two stars, but I have standards when it comes to pizza and I have eaten a LOT of pizza throughout Chicago.” In response: “Yes, you are being overly critical. Cholie’s is not to be compared to Giordano’s or Medici or any of those restaurants because their pizza is $1.99 a slice compared to $6.00 a slice.”
The second step is to ignore the overall star system and instead focus on the top three reviews above the “Recommended Reviews” section. These reviews are always positive regardless of the rating, kind of Yelp’s way of saying, “All restaurants have good things about them! Focus on the positive before you dive into the negative!” Cholie’s three reviews really sum up the atmosphere, the service, the crowd that frequents the place, and the food. They read, “Hot, tasty, Chicago THIN crust that can’t be beat”, “I’ve been eating here since high school”, and “Always super friendly Spanish lady taking orders.” This means that the food, pizza in particular is a good item to order, the crowd is a loyal one with lots of locals and maybe a few high schoolers hang around, and that that the service is friendly. I, personally, think that is everything one needs to know about Cholie’s: the food’s great, the people are kind, and the customers are regulars.
Once you’ve digested these three reviews, if you’re looking for more specifics, like what to order and what to avoid, continue on to the next section with an open mind. For a place like Cholie’s, and for really all places in general, focus on the food when looking at these other reviews. This way you won’t be bombarded with silly negative things that don’t matter and simply distract from the reason why you’re going to a restaurant in the first place: to eat. Service is a tough thing to gauge in a review. Some days they may be packed while others they’re wide open. If you visit the restaurant more than one time on the same day and time and they’re packed both times and the service is bad both times, think about that before reading or writing a review. Maybe the service is bad because they have 100 mouths to feed on a Saturday night. Maybe if you visited them again at a different time and they’re still packed, it’s just a popular restaurant and you’re going to have to deal with that and understand that other people want to eat there too and are just as hangry as you. But it’s also possible that they’re always open on the weekdays and it’s really only on the weekends that they’re busy, but some asshole just had to chalk their one time experience on the busiest day and time of the week to the fact that it must be the service’s fault.
Though those are the main steps: understand the kind of restaurant to which you’re going, ignore the stars and focus on the top three reviews, and only continue on to the “Recommended Reviews” section for tips on what to order, I have a few additional tips with which I’d like to conclude:
- Ignore all reviews that are vague. One user wrote, “I would never go there again.” in regards to Cholie’s. This person said nothing about the actual food, food quality, service, or anything that would actually be helpful in a review.
- Take all negative reviews with a grain of salt. Does the person sound like an asshole in their review? They might just be an asshole in real life. Unless the person explains themselves, saying, “I don’t normally write negative reviews but this place was just terrible,” ignore the people who are assholes.
- If a negative review contains a detailed list about what to avoid and why you should avoid it, you’re probably safe and you can heed their advice if you desire.
- Be wary of reviews that complain of the spiciness of the dish. One review of Raj Darbar said the “medium” was too spicy, and I took their advice only to have a completely non-spicy “mild” dish. I learned my lesson.
- Pay attention to how many reviews the user has, this goes both ways. If it’s a positive review and they have no reviews, trust them. This means that they felt strongly enough that they made a Yelp account in order to review the restaurant. However, if the first-time reviewer wrote something negative, they might be trolling. If the user has a lot of reviews, you can trust them as you see fit, negative or positive review.
- Notice the date of the review. One review of Cholie’s from over a couple of years ago said they only take cash which is no longer true or relevant.
- Finally, trust yourself above anyone else and keep an open mind or ask your friends or Facebook if you feel conflicted about what you read on Yelp. Even if the restaurant received terrible reviews, you should still try it out, if only because it’s one more restaurant you can check off your list.
Now, hopefully you’ll all be kinder when you read and even write your next Yelp review!