So you want to be a restaurant critic? Try this guide to best practices for online commentary.
You love the new restaurant and want the world to know.
So you log into Yelp to spread the message. And that’s where words fail you.
“The food was great.”
Well, that’s not going to convince me or others to head to the restaurant anytime soon.
Hanna Raskin has come to the rescue of would-be critics with her new book on reviewing, “Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews.” (Not sure what Yelp is? It’s an online forum where everyday people critique food, shopping and other businesses; find it at yelp.com.)
As a longtime restaurant reviewer in a variety of locales, most recently Seattle, she has read her share of uninspired, inarticulate comments on Yelp, TripAdvisor and other online sites.
“I think what happens frequently is that Yelpers use Yelp as a comment card rather than as a review,” said Raskin in an interview.
“You may be unhappy that your server disappeared for 20 minutes, or that there was a smudge on the tablecloth. But the reality is that this may not recur for anyone else.”
Better to focus on what others will experience as diners, said Raskin. That means writers need to park their egos at the door and not focus on their singular experience.
In a concise 99 pages, Raskin offers tips for the citizen reviewer, as she breaks down the process of the comments, from its introductory approach to the information that should follow, in all its good and bad variations.
There’s more, including a brief history of reviewing and a definition of the folks at work behind and in front of the restaurant scene. Hers is a solid primer, with many examples of reviews that sink or soar.
“When I first started reviewing, I didn’t know what I was doing. There wasn’t a textbook on this,” Raskin said. Within the journalism world, reviewers often learned from their peers.
“But a lot of people are getting started outside the traditional food writing community,” said Raskin, whose book may become just-the-right text for the at-home critic. The book is also worthwhile for bloggers and students, or anyone who wants to expand skills of critical analysis.
While some professional reviewers ignore Yelp because of its populist commentary, Raskin embraces it, though not for the opinions. She uses the forum as a research tool, a way to discover unfamiliar restaurants or neighborhoods, or to find menu items that she will check out on her own as a reviewer. It was a serious Yelper, in fact, (her friend’s father, who Yelps often and thoughtfully) who inspired the book.
“Yelp is a great starting point. A lot of communities don’t have reviewers, so Yelp can be a first look at restaurants,” she said.
So who was the earliest reviewer? The first collection of commentary was published in 1803 and sold a shocking 20,000 copies for French critic Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière. Duncan Hines, a traveling salesman, was the first American reviewer. His expansive notes on restaurant sanitation took reviewing in a different direction in 1935. Online reviewers didn’t invent snark, but they found a home at Yelp in 2005.
Avoid the pitfalls
A good review takes effort and precision. How do your reviews rate? Raskin offers eight errors to avoid:
1. The underreported review: Accuracy matters. So do details.
2. The clichéd review. Watch your words. If you’re falling back on “delectable,” “delish” or “sinful,” you need to hit the “refresh” button.
3. The flavorless review. Describing food as having “lots of flavor” is unspecific.
4. The worst review ever! Saying that anything is the best ever (or worst ever) is not only unuseful, but likely untrue.
5. The one-sided review: Acknowledge both the good and the bad about a restaurant, or readers may question your conclusions and motive.
6. The impressionist review: Use specifics rather than broad generalizations. Instead of saying a restaurant was overpriced, for example, say what the prices were.
7. The emotional review: Portraying an overly positive or overly negative experience isn’t meaningful to the online reader, who is unlikely to have the identical experience.
8. The egotistical review: Avoid relying too much on where you were born as your expertise, as in “I know Scandinavian food because I grew up in Minnesota.” Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t.
As for Raskin, she’s headed to a new reviewing position at the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, where she has one agenda in mind: “I plan to eat a lot.”
“Yelp Help” is available as an e-book ($2.99 from amazon.com, iBooks and Kobo and other online outlets) and in print form ($5.99; online and in bookstores).
Follow Lee Svitak Dean on Twitter: @StribTaste