When Is It OK To Write A Bad Yelp Review of a Restaurant?

[Image via DeliverBliss]

Today someone told me the story of a bad restaurant experience that involved a steakhouse with $30 steaks, a totally oblivious staff, dishes gone missing, and steak knives never proffered. Our storyteller, let’s call him Mr. X, grew so frustrated that he finally jumped out of his seat, stormed past the waiters who were watching a hockey game on the bar TV, into the kitchen where tired-looking line cooks were flipping steaks on a grill, and into the manager’s office “where I really let him have it.”

The manager was immediately apologetic–when he emerged from the kitchen, the staff scattered–and he ultimately comped Mr. X’s meal. “When I got home,” said Mr. X, “I really thought about writing a bad review on Yelp, but decided against it.”

This got me thinking: when is it OK to write a bad Yelp review of a restaurant?

[Note: I’m invoking Yelp here because, if you don’t have a food blog, it’s your most likely outlet.]

Did it matter, for example, that the meal was comped? If the meal hadn’t been comped, would Mr. X have had more license to vent his frustrations on Yelp? Should he have vented his frustrations anyway?

There are several things to consider:

(1) The consequences of writing a bad Yelp review. For many restaurants, the Yelp page is the top result when people do a Google search for that restaurant; and though many of us take individual Yelper’s reviews with a grain of salt, if there’s a specific story like Mr. X’s written there with fire and passion, that’s the kind of story that keeps restaurant-goers away. And it becomes part of the restaurant’s permanent record. Plus: if owners and executives read this story, people may lose their jobs.

(2) Protecting future customers from a similar experience. The counter-argument, of course, is that if people are going to spend $200 – $300 on a steak dinner, they deserve to know about the restaurant’s shortcomings. If your bad experience is up there next to many others like it, you’re protecting future customers from wasting their hard-earned money; if your bad experience is next to a bunch of good ones, you’re just contributing to the conversation about the restaurant overall.

(3) A traditional restaurant critic’s code of ethics. Generally speaking, restaurant critics visit a restaurant several times before rendering a verdict. This helps clarify whether a restaurant is having an off night or whether their sloppy service and poorly-made food are like this all the time. Of course, a restaurant critic isn’t paying with his or her own money, so it’s easy to have a negative experience and chalk it up to work. Whereas for someone who’s been saving up for this big splurge of a meal, a bad experience can hit extra hard… which is why so many turn to Yelp.

Ultimately, I think Mr. X did the right thing by venting to the manager before venting online. This gave the restaurant the opportunity to address Mr. X’s grievances and because they did so in a way that Mr. X found suitable, he didn’t have to drag their name through the virtual mud.

But still, did Mr. X owe it to future customers to let them know what happened? Do you vent on Yelp when you have a bad restaurant experience? I’m curious to know why or why not.