28 October 2016
Restaurant-ranking publications, guide books and online portals have mushroomed in recent years, but not all of them are reliable. Photo: HKEJ
Restaurant-ranking publications, guide books and online portals have mushroomed in recent years, but not all of them are reliable. Photo: HKEJ

How much should we trust online restaurant reviews?

Technological advances have dramatically altered our way of life, including in various aspects related to the food industry and consumption.

With a smartphone in hand, we can now reserve a table, order a delivery or publish a restaurant review via mobile apps.

Given the keen competition between restaurants, many business opportunities are arising for those who seek to provide guidance on eating establishments.

The ranking of eateries is one such interesting opportunity.

In the past, there haven’t been many established restaurant guide books apart from the ones published by the likes of Michelin. But in recent years, we have seen a mushrooming of restaurant ranking publications.

The list includes British magazine Restaurant, which publishes an annual list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

And we also have 50 best Asia restaurant lists, the Zagat Survey and Opinionated About Dining’s (OAD) Top 100 restaurant list.

In 1900, Michelin brothers, founders of the Michelin tire company, decided to publish an informative guide for French motorists, offering information on various things that would be of interest to drivers.

The restaurant section in the guide book became very popular and slowly turned into a “bible” for people looking for starred dining experiences.

Now, let us examine all the industry lists and see what goes behind all those ratings and rankings.

Let’s take Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list as an example.

The organizer divides the world into 27 regions, with each region having a panel comprised of leading chefs and restaurateurs, food journalists and critics, and well-traveled gourmands.

Each panelist is asked to submit a choice of the top 7 restaurants they have dined in during the voting period in order of preference, and at least 3 of their choices must be outside of their geographical region.

Rather just compare the culinary skills of the chefs, I think the ratings and rankings now have a lot to with public relations. Establishments that make it to the list are often new ventures featuring some fancy and trendy styles of cuisine.

Meanwhile, apart from some notable guides for high-end establishments, there are some websites for everyday-folk like the one operated by Trip Advisor, Hong Kong-based OpenRice and China’s Dianping.

These online platforms allow people like you and me to rate and comment on restaurants.

As the websites depend heavily on advertising income, some observers consider them to be “unreliable”.

Recently a site came in for severe criticism due to suspicion that it was publishing reviews selectively and giving good ratings and positive reviews for restaurants that advertise or pay for the coverage.

Establishments that do not have financial dealings with the website are said to get unfavorable ratings.

Looking from a broad perspective, I don’t think that “absolutely neutral” reviews exist anywhere.

Given the complex ecosystem and the intense competition in the food and drink industry, there is an opportunity for diners as well as chefs to gain some fame.

There’s the trend of having netizens as key opinion leaders (KOL), checking-in, posting and sharing photos of restaurants and dishes on social networking sites such as Facebook and Instagram to displace traditional and serious restaurant reviews by food critics.

Some bloggers have tens of thousands of followers, providing an opportunity to influence an audience as big as that commanded by Michelin.

Not surprisingly, these KOL are being targeted by public relations agents.

The industry has been a carefully calculated game, where restaurants make good use of public relations, marketing, branding and product design to strengthen their market presence.

A good restaurant is akin to beauty in the eye of the beholder, where strictly speaking no universal or quantifiable criteria can be applied for a good dining experience.

My advice to diners is this: Rather than just trust the ratings or reviews on restaurants, keep an open mind and tap all options to find out everything about the chef and the eatery you are visiting.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 19.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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