Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr

By Rob Swystun

Everyone knows (or should know) that Yelp can be a business’ best friend or its worst enemy. It all depends on the reviews a business gets.

But it’s not really fair to say that about Yelp, because it’s just a tool people use. Whether a business garners good or bad reviews depends, of course, on the business itself.

I had a look at the Yelp review pages of five upscale restaurants in the San Diego area to see if I could pinpoint exactly what it is that people look at when judging a restaurant. The results were a bit surprising.

The obvious stuff

First, we’ll get the obvious stuff out of the way. The No. 1 thing people judge a restaurant on is, unsurprisingly, the food. Almost everyone on Yelp likes to play food critic. Some people give it a cursory thumbs up or thumbs down, while others go full-on foodie and critique every single thing they order in great detail.

Another obvious thing people use to gauge whether they’ve had a good or bad experience at a restaurant is service. Even if the food is spectacular, people can get pretty bent out of shape if they’ve been treated poorly (and rightfully so).

And the last of the obvious things is general ambience and decor. A beautiful view or a gorgeous location goes a long way (but only so far if you’re completely lacking in the other areas).

I looked at the first page of Yelp reviews for the following San Diego-area restaurants:

All of these restaurants have overwhelmingly positive reviews on Yelp, although not every single review is positive. I wanted to see if there were some common things people mentioned in regards to good or bad reviews at restaurants. I did manage to pin down a few common elements. I’m not saying that if all restaurants concentrate on these things that they’ll get stellar reviews, but they are something to keep in mind.

Hydration

What criteria do customers use to rate the service at a restaurant? Smiles, friendliness and attentiveness of wait staff are all important, of course, but one thing that kept popping up over and over again in the positive reviews was water. Specifically, customers really like having their water glasses refilled without having to ask. Maybe they know the importance of proper hydration or maybe it’s because a lot of restaurant food is on the salty side, but people just seem to love their water glasses to be refilled.

To a lesser degree, customers also seem to like being waited on by multiple people. One friendly server is good, three or four friendly faces coming to check on them is great.

Beware the rude hostess

This was a bit of a trend for negative reviews. Most, if not all, of these restaurants had at least one “rude hostess” story attached to them.

Judging by restaurant reviews, you’d swear that hostesses were trained in anti-customer service (customer non-service?). Whether it’s because they don’t get tips and therefore don’t have to earn that extra money like wait staff or because they get bored standing up front all shift or because they get a power complex from being the gatekeeper to the restaurant, some hostesses tend to give off an air of superiority and apathy to guests who come in seeking sustenance.

To be fair, some of the hostess horror stories were from people who came in off the street sans reservation, which, at a busy restaurant, is probably pretty annoying. But others were from people who did have reservations and were still treated poorly. That hostess is giving customers the first impression of the place. You’d better make sure she’s schooled in the fine art of customer service. (And maybe give her a tip jar.)

Speaking of reservations, people who do have them and show up on time do expect to be seated immediately. The ol’ “please have a seat at the bar while we prepare your table” trick doesn’t impress people, either, unless at least one round is on the house, accompanied by much sincere apologizing.

Know your crowd

People like to know what kind of place they’re going to. You don’t go to Chuck E Cheese for a business meeting and you don’t take your toddler to Hooters. While a restaurant might be trying to cater to almost everyone, customers can often find this confusing and frustrating.

People doing the business meeting thing or who are on dates often don’t want to be sharing their space with families with small children who are out for Junior’s birthday party. And people who do have children are going to be upset if they go to your restaurant thinking it’s family-friendly only to find that you don’t have high chairs to accommodate them.

Now, obviously you can’t control who comes to your restaurant and if you’re open for lunch, your lunch crowd is probably going to be a bit different from your evening crowd. But having a solid identity for your restaurant and getting that across in your advertising and on your website will likely help keep your clientele more in line with who you are trying to cater to.

Of primary concern to a lot of people is noise level. A crowded, noisy bar attached to a restaurant can be really annoying for people who are looking to sit and chat, and ditto for live music that is too loud. And asking people to have a cocktail at the bar while their table is prepared if that bar is packed to the proverbial gills will not be appreciated (unless maybe all the rounds are on the house).

The little things

You’ve heard that it’s the little things that count and when it comes to restaurants, that’s especially true.

You will get points docked if someone mentions that they’re coming for their anniversary or for a birthday party and you don’t do something like write Happy Birthday on a plate in chocolate and bring it out along with a little cupcake or something. You’ll especially feel the wrath of customer reviewers if they’ve made it known they’re there for a special occasion and don’t receive something special while another table does receive something. It’s probably a good idea to have the wait staff ask people if they’re at the restaurant for a special occasion and do something special if they are.




While not a little thing for hungry people, the pre-meal snack garners a lot of attention when it is something a bit different. While a few of the restaurants I researched garnered praise for tasty breadsticks, the one that offered crackers and hummus got high praise from a lot of people for putting a little imagination into the pre-meal snack.

Beware your own hype

Lastly, and this seems sort of counter-intuitive, but if your restaurant has a stellar reputation, that can actually end up working against it to some extent.

It’s when you’ve given people lofty expectations of your restaurant that you get docked marks if things aren’t just perfect. Going into a five-star restaurant, people expect nothing but the absolute best of everything. So if the waiter is having an off night or the food isn’t impeccable, people will be more than happy to complain loudly about it on Yelp.

One thing that people definitely will complain loudly about is having to wait too long between courses, especially if they’re constantly being lied to that their food will be along within a few minutes. Hungry people are in no mood to put up with your nonsense.

And for the love of all that is holy, do not send out the sommelier (that’s the wine specialist for all us non-foodies) when people ask for the manager. (Although some of the stories about rude managers might make you wish the sommelier had handled complaints.)

So, while food is still your main focal point, knowing what else people hone in on while at your restaurant can give you a leg up in Yelp-land.

Bonus: To be completely frank, reading these reviews was quite boring, but there were a few gems, particularly the ones that relayed anecdotes. I give you the best line out of all the reviews I read, courtesy of Samantha G. from Los Angeles. I will refrain from giving the name of the restaurant, since it is a (brilliantly-worded) complaint.

“Between the dismissive hostesses (the 5 of them combined couldn’t be trusted to change a lightbulb), the hos in stripper heels crop dusting s****y perfume upon the backwards-hatted bros in their wakes, and the house music playing at top volume, it was definitely not the scene I had imagined.”

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About Rob Swystun

A former journalist, Rob has been writing professionally since 2006 and now focuses on copy writing, website content, articles, blogging, ghost writing, editing, proofreading and public relations. Currently an Athabasca University student studying for a BA in Communications, Rob holds a Journalism Diploma from Langara College in Vancouver.

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