How I Read Yelp Reviews

As a food writer, I eat out at least once a week to try new restaurants in the area. People always ask me, how do you find out about new places? My answer almost always is “Yelp.”

This isn’t a sponsored post, and I’m fully aware that Yelp has issues with fake reviews, but you can’t beat it as a search engine for the dining scene. With that being said, here is how I curate the reviews to determine if I will try a restaurant out.

Hot and New

Yelp has a feature called “hot and new” that alerts me when a new restaurant has opened. The alerts are sometimes a little slow (often I’ve already checked the restaurant out before I get the notification), but you can also search “hot and new restaurants” with a location to find out what has opened near you recently. This is updated as people list their establishments with Yelp, so as long as the restaurant has done their work, Yelp helps me to do mine.

The Star System

This is where you need to do some reading between the lines. When a new restaurant opens, there are generally several five-star reviews and occasionally a few one-star reviews. What do they mean? I look to see how many reviews the writer has written on Yelp. It’s right their next to their name. If it’s under five, I’m a little suspect. I understand that you have to start somewhere with your Yelp reviews, so some of these are legitimate. Others are generally friends, family or employees who obviously want to see the restaurant do well. On the other hand, a lot of times one-star reviews are employees at rival establishments who don’t want to see the new guy on the block cut into their business.

What I look for is transparency. Is the writer describing an actual dish – like “the mac and cheese was made with orzo rather than noodles or shells, which gave the illusion that it wasn’t quite so decadent a choice, although the scale reported otherwise the next morning?” Or are they making generalized statements like “the meat was dry, dry, dry?” The more descriptive people are, the more I tend to believe that they actually ate the food.

I can only think of a handful of restaurants that have opened seamlessly. There are always wrinkles that need to be ironed out. So when a review is filled with complaints about service, wait times or running out of food during their honeymoon phase I will take note and maybe wait a few weeks to allow everything to settle out or go in knowing that it may not be the smoothest dining experience. 

Another common complaint that I see in Yelp reviews is the price point.  Price is subjective. If you don’t want to pay upwards around $40 for a filet, then pick your restaurant accordingly. Most have websites with menus you can view online. If the spot in question doesn’t, go through the Yelp photos to see if there are menu photos. There almost always are.  One thing to keep in mind is that restaurants have been hit hard by the increases in minimum wage. While I fully support these increases, restaurants (and I’m sure other establishments as well) have had to pass these increases onto the diner. So while you may not want to pay $11 for a plate of tacos and extra for rice and beans, that may be our new reality in the East Bay. 

Then there are those who were just in a bad mood and decided to take it out on the restaurant or who had expectations that the restaurant couldn’t possibly meet, such as a lack of vegetarian options at a BBQ joint.

What I Like to Talk About in My Reviews

Food likes and dislikes are personal ones. Queue the gasps, I for one don’t love dark chocolate. Not everyone likes lamb or veal, some people prefer their beef to be like shoe leather. So I look at the overall dining experience. Did I like what I ate? Was it well-prepared? If it’s a pricier restaurant, were the dishes presented well? Was it really noisy? But most of all, I want to see if they have delivered on their promise. For instance, I don’t expect a taco stand to have the same ambiance as a linen tablecloth dining room. They may both be four-star eateries in my estimation, but I’m evaluating that on a different set of expectations.

Time to Eat

Before you head to a restaurant based solely on the star system, take a few minutes to read the reviews – I tend to gravitate to the three-star ones first or the people who have written upwards around 50 reviews, to see if the restaurant is a match to your current mood, budget and your cravings.

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