Do you use TripAdvisor, or Yelp? Do you review restaurants?
We're traveling right now (in Lucca, Italy) and I've found myself doing a lot of searching for restaurant reviews in the last few weeks. Mainly it's out of curiosity, because I tend to just sort of wander around and eventually choose a restaurant based on a lot of factors other than the online reviews.
But after reading so many reviews, both glowingly positive and darkly negative, I've started to wonder about the criteria people use to rate a restaurant.
If you've worked in a restaurant (waiter, cook, greeter, whatever), you know it's hard work. Apart from being physically demanding, it's a huge mental challenge. It's hard to always keep your game face on, especially when a group of 30 shows up on a Friday night without a reservation, or someone throws a fit in the dining room and causes a scene, or when it's just too busy to see straight and it's all you can do to remember who needs a bread basket and who needs their check much less be friendly and make small talk.
Now throw a bunch of different languages into the mix. You're Italian (or whatever). Most of the clientele expect/want/need you to speak in English. or French. or German. It's loud. It's busy. You've been shouting to the cook (in Italian) and now you're out in the dining room, trying to hear/understand the person mumbling their way in heavily accented English through a calamitously complicated order of split dishes and hold the tomatoes, etc.
So coming back around to my point. When I go to TripAdvisor and read reviews for restaurants in Lucca, I find a trend that I've seen pretty much everywhere. People either hail a restaurant as a 5-star, end-all be-all dining experience, or a 1-star I-can't-believe-this-place-is-still-in-business hellhole.
The interesting thing that I've noticed is that 5-star reviews are largely based on food quality. The 1-star reviews are nearly always based on poor service (perceived or otherwise, because there are some cultural biases and misconceptions that lead people to believe that they (specifically) are receiving bad service when they are in fact receiving the same service as anyone else, and that service isn't necessarily bad, just different than what their cultural expectations were leading them towards).
Here's what bugs me. I almost never leave restaurant reviews, and if/when I do, it's usually a 4 or a 5 star review. I prefer to reward companies with praise, not scold them because of a bad waiter or waitress. The waiter (especially if he's no good) could be gone tomorrow; the restaurant, if it has any sense of individual identity and/or responsiblity, is what it is. Unless someone brings me a plate of bugs and then spits on it and calls it a steak, I'm unlikely to give them a 1 star review. I just won't review them at all, even if I feel like I had a sub-par dining experience. A 1-star review can really stand out as a blemish on a company's page (especially if it just happens to be the most recent one), and so often (at least over here), I find that the reviews are based on things like, "The waiter insisted on speaking to me in English, even though I'm fluent in Italian." I met someone the other day (a fellow American) who said, "Man, I hate it when I speak to them in Italian and they answer me in English. There goes the tip." Really??! It's not an insult, you know. Get over yourself. Maybe he/she really wants/needs the practice. Maybe your Italian sucks. Maybe your Italian is really good, but slow, and he/she is in a big freaking hurry to get back to the kitchen and grab more plates of food. So roll with it. Make their job easier. Joke with them a little bit in English or Italian or whatever and just see if maybe they aren't a little more flexible with you the next time they alight for a nanosecond at your table.
Another common complaint from reviewers, "When we asked to be seated, they told us it was all full, even though we could see 5 or 6 empty tables." When the hostess tells you they are all full, what she means is either that they will be full, i.e., they are reserved, or that the kitchen can't keep up. It's a mark of quality in a restaurant (at least over here) when they just won't seat you if the kitchen is overwhelmed. Your hurt feelings aside, I can assure that they didn't seat you because of a careful calculation on their part, not because you're a tourist. Trust me, they want your money... but a good restaurant isn't willing to rush the people that are already seated into finishing their meals and clearing out, and if they seat you, then they won't be able to seat the couple arriving in fifteen minutes who called ahead and reserved a table. The other night I walked into a restaurant (one that is in all of the guidebooks) and though I could see many, many empty tables, the host told me that they were full. I speak Italian, and he explained to me that a party of 50 was arriving shortly for a birthday. He didn't really speak English, so the people in front of me in line didn't get a full explanation, and instead of giving him the benefit of the doubt, they stormed off in a huff, muttering about how rudely they had been treated.
Lesson: Take off your tourist armor. Don't assume you are being treated differently than anyone else. Such is life. Smile, and tell them you'll be back tomorrow. Try to call in advance next time and reserve a table. And for heaven's sake, don't bother all of us by posting a 1-star review on TripAdvisor about how you've never been treated so rudely in your life. They didn't turn you away, bleeding on the front doorstep, because you didn't have insurance. They just told you that there wasn't a table available tonight. It happens.
I don't want to read any more reviews about how rude the waiter was. I want to read about how you found a perfectly cooked tagliata, or a buttery slice of vegetable sformato that melted in your mouth, or a plate of salami and truffled pecorino that transcended the known universe, a panna cotta that kicked creme brulee's ass. If you are going to take the time to review a restaurant, tell me about the food, about why there's no better place in town to EAT. Yes, the service side of things is important. But do your best to look past cranky waiters. My favorite place to eat on the planet, La Piazzetta, is run by one man who stands in front of a blazing hot pizza oven for 5 hours, churning out 100+ pizzas an evening. He is, admittedly, cranky from time to time; he can be brusque in the way that he puts (throws) your pizza on the table. But the man is a slave to quality, and if he didn't say one word to me the whole evening, if all he did was grunt as he slung a margherita con bufala pizza in my general direction, rest assured he would get 5 stars from me every time, because one bite into it, I realize that I have no idea how long I waited for the table, or for my order to be taken, or for my pizza to arrive. I realize I'm just glad that I was patient enough to wait at all, and my patience is being handsomely rewarded.