Everyone’s a critic, thanks to online review sites like Yelp. That makes criticism worth reading even harder to find.
Enter Hanna Raskin, until recently the restaurant critic for Seattle Weekly, known for her thorough research, an eye for out-of-the-way restaurant gems, an engaging style, and unapologetic honesty. She’s doing her part to teach the secrets of well-crafted, useful, online restaurant reviews in her new e-book, “Yelp Help” (available on Amazon.com for $2.99, or in print form for $5.99 in selected bookstores.)
In the book, Raskin goes through the basic workings of a restaurant kitchen (for those who have wondered what the ‘expediter’ does or when the prep cooks go home,) gives a brief history of restaurant criticism, then gets into the meat of things – where most online reviews go bad and how to avoid the most common errors.
(Sample: “Rather than declare a restaurant ‘definitely overpriced,’ quote real numbers.” Sample #2: Avoid ambiguous words, even the ubiquitous ‘flavorful’: “Spoiled milk has a strong flavor. So does a 2-day-old scallop.”) She shows how professional critics research and write, and – that writing class essential – how to develop your own voice.
Seattle Yelp-ers who take her advice still won’t be competing directly with Raskin; she’s leaving town for a new job at the Charleston, S.C., Post & Courier. We talked by phone about why people hate Yelp reviews, food clichés to avoid, and where a critic eats before leaving the Northwest (the list includes lots of Asian food in the I.D., a dim sum run to Vancouver, B.C., Ma’Ono, Terra Plata, Poppy, Renee Erickson’s restaurants, and Il Corvo pasta.)
Here’s a condensed, edited version of our conversation, and, as a former critic, my favorite piece of advice from her book: “It’s hugely important for reviewers to remember that different restaurants serve different purposes. The critic’s job is not to judge whether a restaurant meets a predetermined set of criteria for greatness, but whether it succeeds in doing what it has set out to do.”:
Q: You called the book ‘Yelp Help,’ but it seems like a good instruction manual for any food critic.
A: “I specifically meant it for any online reviewing site. That was my area of interest going into it. But I think I did have in the back of my mind how lost I felt when I started writing full-length reviews for a print newspaper, and there was no textbook whatsoever. This would have been when I was in Asheville (N.C.) and I remember wondering if I could write to a critic and say ‘Could I go on a review meal with you, because I have no idea how something like that is supposed to unfold’…
“It was kind of cute, my dad read the book and he said, this is great, I get online and review electronics, and this is helpful for that too. If you want to write a review for a lawnmower, I think being fair and factual is still a high priority.”
Q: Why did you write the book?
A: “I tend to be one of those people that wants to fix things, and I really got sick and tired of everyone complaining about how useless Yelp is, when it obviously has incredible potential — and in a lot of ways is really useful — and I thought needed a nudge to be a lot more so.”
Q: When you look at Yelp reviews, what drives you the craziest?
“I think what drives me the craziest, and I’ve probably said this too many times in my book, it’s when it’s all about the person instead of the restaurant. I have no interest in the lo mein someone ate in China… I do want to have some context for the review, but I don’t like the online equivalent of someone’s travel slide show.”
Q: I also noticed your distate for people who say “this is the best fill-in-the-blank food ever.”
A: “It’s incredible. Maybe these people are much more fortunate than I am, but they really have encountered the best thing, and sometimes their dinner includes three of the best things?”
Q: What’s the professional reviewer’s place now, with Yelp and Urbanspoon and all the other user sites out there?
A: “It seems to me there’s no reason for professional critics to feel the least bit threatened by these online databases. They really help us do our job in a lot of ways. Here in Seattle there are a ton of places serving food, and there is not a chance I’m going to eat in every one of them. I am blessed to have people out there doing legwork for me. I think the professional reviewing and civilian reviewing, as I call it, can be really complementary. It’s doing a service for the eating community at large for us to kind of open source what we’re doing… In some other disciplines (the way the work is done is) completely accessible and both professionals and amateurs practice it. I don’t think anyone worries that art is going to fall off because there are 8th graders with a watercolor set.”
Q: Were there any pleasant surprises with Yelp as you looked more into it?
A: “I do love that it’s a testament to how enthusiastic people are about eating, and how willing they are to go to places they may not have read about. They’re getting there before the professional critics are.”
Q: Are you getting feedback yourself on the book?
A: “I have not had much! Some reviews pop up on Amazon, but I assume that Yelp reviewers are incredibly opinionated, and I’ve been waiting to hear from them. Unfortunately, there is no space on Yelp for books.”