Michelin, Yelp, Zagat: Who Can We Believe?


The (Michelin) stars must have been truly aligned for Serious Eaters yesterday, because Michelin introduced its 2008 New York restaurant ratings two days after the Wall Street Journal ran a piece questioning the validity of online restaurant reviews written by bloggers and eaters who don't pay for their meals. (Full disclosure: Contributors to Serious Eats, Slice, A Hamburger Today, and Ed Levine Eats who review restaurants pay for their meals unless explicitly stated otherwise ).

The juxtaposition of these two events provides a perfect opportunity to discuss the relative merits of reviews and judgments rendered every which way, from on high (Michelin and the New York Times) to online (Yelp and Zagat).

The Michelin rating system is a combination of the Edsel and the Yugo, a clearly outmoded source of reliable information. It sends its anonymous inspectors out to every restaurant it is considering for inclusion in its guide. That would be fine, except when you read the Michelin Guide, it is clear that some restaurants get short shrift because their entries in the guide contain outdated information clearly gleaned from press releases.

Even more problematic is the criteria used in the Michelin rating system. The quality of china, stemware, and flatware a restaurant uses stopped being relevant to the quality of food being served years ago, except when it comes to three-star restaurants. Ditto for thread count of the tablecloths and the napkins.

Michelin has never acknowledged that the only two things that matter in a restaurant experience are the quality of the food and how welcome and special a restaurant makes its customers feel when they walk through the door. Perhaps the Michelin Guide executives should make every one of its inspectors read Danny Meyer's book. If they had, they would have realized that Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Esca, the Little Owl, Hearth, and Ouest, to name a few, deserved at least one star.

It's time for the Michelin Guide to get new tires, because right now it's so flat it needs to be taken off the road. It's not clear that the Michelin guides have gotten any traction with U.S. diners. Europeans are probably the main purchasers of the Michelin U.S. guides, and with the dollar being so weak, they are coming to eat in America in droves. That's why U.S. restaurateurs turn out in droves at the press conference announcing the arrival of the new Michelin Guide each year.

The Yelps (and other websites, blogs, and print publications) that accept free meals (sometimes en masse) and the Zagats of the world present a different set of issues and problems for readers and users like me.

Serious Eaters are looking for reviews—judgments, really, that they can trust, that they can believe in. That's why the New York Times continues to be the most powerful reviewing force in New York restaurants. The Times has been a source of credible, reliable, and trustworthy news, reviews, and commentary for more than a hundred years now. It has earned readers' trust because its reviewer tries to dine anonymously, pays for every meal, and goes at least three times before rendering a judgment.

But even the Times's influence has been waning in the face of tremendous competition from online citizen brigade reviewers both filtered (Zagat) and unfiltered (Yelp). Many smart, sophisticated people all over the country simply don't regularly read any newspaper any more.

The Zagat Survey was the first entity to offer a voice to passionate restaurant-goers who pay for their own meals. Trying to put the hammer in the hands of many people instead of one sounds like a step in the right direction. And, in theory, it is. But the Zagat Survey has been plagued by charges that it is simply too easy for friends, restaurateurs, and employees to stuff the ballot box. So how trustworthy the Zagat ratings are remains an open question.

Then we have the true citizen's brigades like Yelp. It is problematic and vexing to say the least when we read about restaurants offering free meals en masse to Yelp users and other bloggers. But I must point out that long before there were blogs and websites many (reputable and disreputable) print and broadcast journalists were feeding at the freebie trough. So to say the blogosphere is the engine driving restaurant freebies is not only disingenuous, it's flat-out wrong and downright dishonest.

In the end what is a serious eater to do? Restaurant freebies are not going away anytime soon, offline or on. Many, if not most, food writers and the publications they work for cannot afford to pay a living wage to restaurant reviewers that would include a healthy budget to pay for meals.

All any of us can do is find people online and off we can believe, people who we know share our tastes and values, and follow their forks and hearts to restaurants they like.
We serious eaters will develop our own filters comprising many different sources of information for restaurant reviews and tips. That reliable, trustworthy person or entity and resulting filter may be Frank Bruni,
Zagat, Yelpers, Restaurant Girl, Serious Eats, Ed Levine, or some combination thereof. Restaurant critic monogamy is neither desirable nor required.

The information, the series of filters, are all out there for the taking. It's up to serious eaters everywhere to connect the dots any way they see fit.

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