Online restaurant rants, raves usually not reality

The past two Tempo dining columns could read like a tale of two pizzarias. Both represent business expansions, just with two very different target audiences in mind.

The most recent, a review of Jackson Creek Pizza Co., relates an experience that’s comfortable and familiar for Medford diners after more than a decade.

Last week’s review of Mystic Treats, on the other hand, describes a departure from average pizza. I had hoped a recent dinner there would be a culinary adventure. My companions, however, probably would have preferred Jackson Creek. And they all probably questioned my credibility on the topic of restaurants.

When Mystic Treats came on the scene more than a year ago, I swooned over its smoked salmon-topped “Hawaiian” pizza, pear pizza with blue cheese and the notion of macaroni and cheese on a pizza crust. And all of Erika and Michael Lowe’s pies are topped with savory, flavored oils.

With co-workers the only witnesses to my enthusiasm, I couldn’t wait to share it with my husband, Will, confident that he would approve. Cut to our recent weeknight dinner at Mystic Treats’ new Ashland location, formerly The Old Farmhouse, made over in a purple-and-green motif.

I dutifully ordered the Lowes’ greatest hits, plus a newcomer with crab. The special dietary requirements of friends who joined us factored into some selections, meaning they weren’t quite as delicious as usual. How could they be without cheese?

Cold craft beers went down smoothly on the hot day. When the pizzas arrived, though, response from the table was underwhelming. Sure, the crab pizza isn’t one I’d order again, not without making a point to pay for extra crab, as indicated in my review. But I’d expected a little more appreciation for the other unusual combinations.

Wait a minute … that’s always the point when Will reminds me that most people don’t want particularly unusual food in restaurants. My tastes are not reflective of the mainstream, he says.

He, personally, was looking for more of a brew-pub vibe, so he could just enjoy hanging out with our friends. Apparently, he could skip over some of the area’s most innovative pizza if the atmosphere reminded him of a repainted Denny’s.

This little backstory shows how widely diners experiences at the exact same restaurant can diverge depending on tastes and expectations. Want proof? Check out an eatery’s online reviews, often problematic for restaurateurs and users alike because rarely do posts convey information meaningfully or even accurately.

Granted, reviews in this paper’s weekly arts and entertainment section aren’t aiming for erudite criticism and commentary. As a small-town publication, we don’t want to impact small, local businesses by nitpicking experiences that, more often than not, rate simply average.

But that doesn’t keep so many average folk from ranting — or raving — about restaurants on the likes of Yelp and TripAdvisor. That’s why I’m so skeptical of such reviews.

Idiosyncrasies of service or cleanliness are unlikely to recur in most cases. And evaluating a meal based on portion sizes — my personal pet peeve — only demonstrates a desire to fill one’s belly. I don’t go to a restaurant for something I could do at home.

Longtime restaurant reviewer Hanna Raskin, similarly, was frustrated with online reviews. So she wrote “Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews” ($2.99 from amazon.com, iBooks and Kobo and other online outlets; $5.99 in print form).

Rather than treat these sites as a kind of comment card, users should focus on what others will experience as diners, says Raskin, critic for the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. Her book is worthwhile for social media-savvy foodies or anyone who wants to expand skills of critical analysis.

Here are more of her tips for improving your online reviews, courtesy of McClatchy News Service.

1. The underreported review: Accuracy matters. So do details.

2. The cliched 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.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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