03.Reading between the lines
Melbourne foodies might be surprised to learn that their city’s best food comes not from the Good Food Guide’s three-hatters like Rockpool or Vue de Monde. Rather, according to one online guide, it’s the little-known Shangri-La Inn, a Malaysian restaurant located in a suburban shopping centre. The one person who reviewed it had a good time and rated it accordingly — a perfect five out of five.
But does that mean the Shangri-La Inn offers the best dining experience in Melbourne? Is it the foodie heaven, or indeed Shangri La, of fine dining? Reviews we found on other sites were warm and positive, but somehow lacked the superlatives of reviews for other great eateries.
Conversely, do Rockpool (scoring 3.6/5 on the same online guide) and Vue de Monde (3.8/5) deserve their comparatively mediocre ratings, or have just a couple of less-than-gruntled diners pushed their ratings south?
You’ll find various kinds of review in restaurant guides, including critics’ reviews, editorial overviews, reviews from the dining public and a restaurant’s own overviews. Whose opinions you can rely on will depend not only on the integrity of the review, but also on what you want from a restaurant.
It should already be obvious from the example above that the review of one diner shouldn’t be regarded as gospel — especially if that one person’s only eaten one meal at the reviewed place (or is a relative of the owner!). The more reviews the merrier — there are lots of reasons for people having different opinions of a restaurant, including different expectations, the staff on the day, the food ordered (and of course subjectivity is a major player here) and the day of the visit (Fridays and Saturdays are likely to be much busier than other nights, while quiet nights can lack buzz and atmosphere).
We like Eatability’s approach, where reviewers are encouraged to use the same name each time, and you can read all the reviews by a particular person to see what they’ve said about other places — perhaps some you’ve been to — and build up a picture of the kind of reviewer they are (overly harsh or overly generous, for example).
While you might take a single review from a critic more seriously than one from a single ‘lay’ diner, critics’ reviews are subject to their own bias issues. It’s widely acknowledged that well-known critics receive special attention from cooking and service staff, which could give them an overly favourable impression. This probably helps explain why other patrons visiting restaurants with lots of hype and hats may end up feeling a little underwhelmed.
On the other hand, critics can be more picky about things that other diners wouldn’t notice. Their single review could also be a little old, and many things could have changed since the time of writing. This is why we like Mietta’s approach of using critics’ reviews from as many sources as possible, often (though unfortunately not always) including very recent ones.