Friday, September 30, 2011

Confessions of a Yelp Addict

Of all my geeky passions and misadventures, one that I have yet to touch upon with this blog is my most recent love affair with the review site Yelp.

Yelp, you say??? Isn't that the site where bitter housewives go to kvetch and moan about how their cobb salad at the local dinner was just awful, the service at their hair salon dreadful, or the waiter at the bistro down the road gave them a mean look? Yelp, the sworn enemy of the service industry, you mean?

This is a good summary of the reactions I get when I tell my friends that not only do I write reviews for Yelp, but I am an "Elite Squad" member.

I first got started writing for Yelp because I saw it as an important way to reward local businesses who are bringing great products and services to the community. In 2011, the economy is certainly no great friend to small businesses, so why not publicly highlight when a local business - be it a restaurant, doctor, or car mechanic - goes above and beyond the call of duty and provides truly high-quality service?

In its ideal form, I see Yelp as a "crowdsourced" ally of small businesses that can help to counteract other market forces (reviews from media critics, rising rents, and chain franchises) that could otherwise conspire to put them out of business. Yelp is also a terrific resource for finding a car mechanic that won't rip you off, a chiropractor who truly knows what he's doing, or new restaurants in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It has been a huge source of knowledge of my own Mission neighborhood by letting me know which places are the most popular (based on number of reviews), and which are off the beaten path. I have even surprised some of my friends who have lived here for years by checking out places they had not even heard of, all thanks to Yelp.

I only have a few cardinal rules when I review a place:

  1. Only review places you have actually visited - you'd be surprised how many Yelpers ignore this common courtesy
  2. Only include experiences you actually had in your review - if you didn't order something, don't pretend you know how it tastes!
  3. No chain businesses - the fact that anyone bothers to review their neighborhood Starbucks or Chipotle is baffling to me. They are chains, people! They're supposed to all be the same.
  4. Special priority goes to the places you enjoy frequently - you'd like your favorite restaurant or cafe to stay in business, right? Then you owe it to them to write a glowing endorsement!

My reviews (75 currently) generally range from the generally praiseworthy,

NOPA (Western Addition, San Francisco)

After hearing from countless people in San Francisco - foodies, industry people, and other friends - that NOPA is like heaven in restaurant form, I decided it was high time to check it out. 
We got here at 5 so we could try their happy hour bar menu, available from 5-6. Note: This is the BEST way to score a table on a busy Friday or Saturday night. Once we were seated at the bar, we were able to get our name on the list in minutes and were seated by 6:15! Not bad for a place otherwise packed and buzzing with food-scene excitement.  
Space: Hands down the best part of NOPA is the physical space. The restaurant resembles an Aspen ski lodge plunked down in San Francisco and redecorated by celebrity interior designers. 20 ft + loft ceilings, elegant furnishings, beautiful lighting, and a public-facing kitchen allows you to watch the chefs go at it right from your seat. Simply being in this space may bring you closer to Buddha...
 Drinks: Drink service here was solid. The first bartender who seated us (brown-haired ponytail guy) seemed put off when we needed a minute to look at the expansive drinks menu, so quickly became disinterested and faded to the background. Another bartender (good-looking Mexican guy) quickly took the reigns and took much better care of us. Their spirits menu is vast and intimidating for the uninitiated like myself. I recommend the Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof whiskey on the rocks. One of the best whiskeys I've ever tasted! The Russian River Blonde Ale is also very good and worth a try.
Appetizers: Started off with the goat cheese and crostini. That goat cheese was like crack! Finger. Lickin'. Good. Perfect temperature and disappeared quickly from the bowl. Followed up with the sea bass crudo, which was also excellent.

Their albacore tuna melt (from the bar menu) was the one true miss of the evening. Cheddar cheese doesn't taste good on everything, especially less-than-fresh tuna fish. Fail.

Food: Rotisserie chicken was very good but not spectacular. Their best dish, by far, was the halibut flank. Simply delicious with a unique red sauce that made you really savor each bite.
One complaint with the dishes throughout: nearly all of them came on top of a bed of frisee lettuce. Why??? It's got no flavor and adds nothing the dish. They would be much better off pairing their food with arugula, kale, or even romaine. Service was impeccable, as one would expect of a four-star restaurant.

Overall, NOPA is definitely a rockstar of a restaurant. The physical space is breathtaking, and they are probably the most talked-about new restaurant in SF. Their reputation is not without merit. Their dishes are fantastic and their drinks are second-to-none. Aside from a few minor misses here are there, this place serves up reliably excellent food and is well worth checking out if you want "the" place to do fine dining in SF. All told, we paid about $150 including drinks for a party of three, not bad in the most expensive city on the west coast!

To the deservedly spiteful:

Studio Cleer (U-District, Seattle)
A few words of advice for Chris at Studio Cleer:
1) Your location is VERY HARD TO FIND. I know this because, after buying your $25 promotional coupon on BuyWithMe, I tried to scope out the place and get an appointment. I circled the block 5 or 6 times and could not, for the life of me, find any address labeled 945 Boat Street. You are in an industrial area with very few other businesses like you nearby. You need MAXIMUM VISIBILITY. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has encountered this problem.
2) ANSWER MY FREAKING PHONE CALL when I call asking for directions to your studio. I left a message on your voicemail two weeks ago and have yet to receive any kind of response. Am I wrong in taking this to mean you don't want my business??? I'm a hairy mofo who would have been a regular customer of yours if you had bothered to engage in just a bit of customer service.

The "helping a new business along:"

Little Water Cantina (Eastlake, Seattle)

As a resident of the building where this restaurant just came in, I was thrilled to finally give it a try yesterday! We were told when we moved in last September that the place would be ready by last fall - guess there was a bit of delay in construction???
First impressions: this place is definitely trying to aim for the same upscale Mexican atmosphere as other knockout restaurants like Barrio or Cactus. The decor is very trendy and artistic, full of clever design touches - it's clear the owners put a lot of thought into the look and feel of the place!
The patio area is absolutely delightful, but then again I live here so I already knew that :). If anything, I think they could use several more tables on the patio given the demand this place will see in the summer months. We had to wait almost 20 minutes to get a spot on the patio which we had reserved in advance, and this would've been unnecessary if they had enough seating on the patio area - there was more than enough room, they were just short on manpower!
Service-wise, we had no other complaints. Our bartender was very gracious and took the time to mash the mint leaves of our mojitos (probably her least favorite drink for that reason). Our server was very polite and knowledgeable about the menu, which was on a blackboard cafe-style. Why you would open your restaurant without printing menus first, though, is beyond me. She had no trouble doing a complicated split check, which we definitely appreciated. Since this place is just starting out, they will probably need to hire at least a few more servers and an additional bartender. It's only May and they were looking SLAMMED!
Their drinks are fantastic - get the house margaritas - they are strong, delicious, and only 4 dollars. Mojitos had just the right amount of mintyness and hit the spot.

Food-wise, it's probably too early to deliver the verdict, as they are still working on their final menu. We had the carne asada, which was served quite rare with a side of beans and mushrooms (interesting combination you seldom see in most Mexican restaurants). I personally thought it was delicious, though it may be too rare for others' taste. The Rockfish tacos were excellent and well worth the $7. Turkey enchiladas - that's right, TURKEY ENCHILADAS?!? These were good but not outstanding, with a very unusual flavor (sesame?). This is by far their most creative dish, but it needs some work (maybe extra spice?) if they're going to be on the menu long-term.
My one complaint besides the 20-wait for the patio echoes what @Allison F. said: chips and salsa should be free at any Mexican restaurant, I don't care who you are. Especially if you're charging $14-18 for your entrees. And $8 for guacamole is more than a bit outrageous (good guac though!).

In all, despite the opening night kinks, this place is a winner with a solid waitstaff, wonderful space, and an innovative chef who clearly knows what she's doing.

I try to be as fair and balanced as I can when I review a place. I do my best to be both detailed and compelling case for the businesses that really are doing great work for their customers.

It seems, however, that the number of Yelp-haters is on the upswing, especially from the business owners themselves. Yelp, it appears, is not the meritocracy I had envisioned when I signed up for it, at least not if you're paying $300 a month for advertising on their website.

Here's what a recent Huffington Post article had to say about the pitfalls of relying on Yelp reviews:

1. Lies Are Just "Personal Opinions" - A Yelper claimed, falsely, to be a writer for SFWeekly in a restaurant review. SF Weekly's Food editor caught the lie and contacted the reviewer; she admitted that she actually wrote for SF Weekly Voice, and said she'd ask Yelp to change the review. But the website refused to amend the review -- a representative told SF Weekly that the lie in question was "personal opinion."

It's very discouraging to hear that I could throw my standards of review-writing out the window and say literally ANYTHING, I wanted about places, even abject lies, and Yelp would sit back and call it a "personal opinion or experience". That logic smacks of GW Bush and his spurning of the "reality-based community". If I write in my next review that the taqueria down the street is serving giraffe's brains and fried dog liver in its burritos, would they take it down? I'm curious to test out this little experiment, but worried my Elite status would be revoked if they found out. Such a whore, I know :)

2. Yelp Is a Known Outlet for Shilling - The fact that any restauranteur or publicist would deliberately try to inflate their own ratings by writing fawning reviews of themselves is shameful, though not at all surprising. NY Eater even has a column devoted to sniffing out these bastards' reviews. On this count, however, I will give Yelp some credit, as I have known a few people who have been banned from the site for shilling for their employers or colleagues in this way.

3. Yelp is Anonymous - Yes, Yelp is anonymous, and reviewers can and will say anything (often with less tact or empathy than they would show "in real life"). This is true of nearly EVERY WEBSITE EVER MADE. The reviewers can still be contacted and yelled at for writing a crappy review, as could any conventional newspaper or magazine restaurant critic. This argument just fails.

4. Yelpers Can Review Restaurants They Haven't Visited - This is one of the biggest crimes a Yelper can perpetrate. See my own Rule #1 above! Don't give a one-star review for a place just because it isn't open or you couldn't get in because it was too busy one night. The fact that it's super-busy probably means the food is good and worth the wait!

5. Yelp Has Been Known to Bully Restaurants - According to The East Bay Express, Yelp sales reps have been accused of bullying restaurant owners to purchase their $300 monthly advertising in exchange from removing negative reviews from the restaurant's page. This is absolutely sad and desperate tactic Yelp is using to squeeze hard-earned profits from restaurants' razor-thin budgets. That this happens at all only reinforces my rule #4 in writing reviews - write positive reviews of the places you love before you write a single negative review. It is free publicity and no one will ever have to pay to remove it!

6. Yelp Gives No Guidelines for Star Ratings - There are no official guidelines to how to rate your experience at any business on Yelp, between one and five stars. If your review was unnecessarily scathing, inaccurate, or even full of blatant lies, the Yelp gods will not intervene. And because most people aren't motivated to write a witty review of an experience that was merely OK, the reviews do tend to be polarized into the camps of extreme reactions: people who either loved or hated the place.

7. Yelp Throws "Elite Squad" Events that Bias Reviews - I haven't had time to attend any of the Elite events since moving to SF, but I plan on doing so very soon! There's a free Elite event nearly every week in SF, which is the top Yelp market with 30% of the site's activity, according to a New York Times article. In some respects, Elite Squad members can be considered a source of free labor for Yelp. We do the groundwork of reviewing a vast directory of diverse businesses, the scale of which no review site could ever find the money to support, and are rewarded with the positive feedback of other readers...oh, and did I mention the awesome Elite events? I'll have to update this blog after meeting other Elite Squad members at one of these oh-so-exclusive meetings of we foodie illuminati.

Yelp is certainly not without its faults, as you can see. I still am a firm believer, though, that accurate, relevant, and personalized reviews of small businesses from the customers who love them is a blessing and a powerful resource these businesses can leverage.

More Yelp updates to come after I finally get myself to an Elite party. In the meantime, feel free to check out my reviews here. For a sampling of some of the most absurd, unfair and heinous Yelp reviews (they type I try to avoid), check out the hilarious blog Fuck You Yelper.

The weather here in San Francisco has been delightful these past few weeks, with sunny skies and temps in the high 70s. On Tuesday, I checked out Twin Peaks for the views on a rare cloudless day. Unfortunately, my phone takes low-quality pictures, so I will pretend the photos are instead Impressionist paintings of the views I saw :)


  1. I agree that Yelp is a great tool, however I think their 'smart filters' need a bit of work. My mom has had 10 patients review her on Yelp, all happen to be 5 stars, over the course of a few weeks and ALL 10 have been filtered so it still appears as though no one has reviewed her. What does Yelp say to this? Tough shit. The reviews were "too good to be true." Guess it doesn't always pay to be a super star in a small town.

  2. This is a good point, it seems they are still working out serious kinks in their content guidelines. Someone's legitimate review is "too good to be true" while pure crapola and misinformation is "personal opinion" that can't be removed. Until the Interwebs comes up with a better option, though, we may be stuck with Yelp for awhile!