May it Please the Palate

A Bad Review

I travel a lot for my job, and rely on my hard-working staff to set up my travel arrangements. As long as I have a comfortable bed and a pillow for my stuffed monkey, the hotel part is pretty easy. But finding a place to eat is a little trickier.

Typically I rely on the internet. I’ve settled lately on Trip Advisor for reviews, mainly for restaurants. I used to use Zagat, but that site has undergone more organizational changes than a bad employer trying to escape liability. I’ve looked at Yelp, but that seems to be dedicated for restaurant owners’ friends and relatives, writing painfully obvious adorations with wretched spelling and grammar. So Trip Advisor it is.

Still, one has to read between the lines. One or two people having a bad experience is inevitable. But when it’s a pattern, you can pick up on that by reading a good sampling. On the flip side, it’s easier to garner a good review if what you deliver is uncomplicated. Having just returned from Norfolk, I learned that the #1 restaurant (of 561 in the city) was a bakery. They made a darned good cookie, but c’mon.

To get a more personal sense of how Trip Advisor ratings play out, check out the rank of restaurants in your home town. I feel like I’m pretty tied into the food scene here in Ann Arbor, but the rankings baffle me. Number 1 (of 425) is a pizza joint I don’t hear much about; # 5 is an outdoor beer garden. They serve … beer. Hard to go wrong with that! But the ratings game is not so straightforward when you’re looking for a more multi-faceted restaurant experience. You have to dig, and find reviews that are detailed and helpful - not distorted by the fact that the people at the next table snuck in their Yorkie and fed it under the table.

When I rate restaurants, I try not only to be fair, but to provide enough detail about the food, presentation, and service to give travelers an idea of what to expect, and let them make their own conclusions. But I recently had an experience in Ann Arbor so frustrating I was compelled to give the restaurant a negative review, solely because of the awful service. I wrote in part, “It’s almost as if they teach indifference to their staff.” Lo and behold, the next day there was an online response from the general manager, who not only apologized, but gave me his phone number.

Worse – I went out for a drink just last night with a friend who insisted on going to this very same restaurant. And to make me feel especially guilty, the service was amazingly friendly and attentive. One server happened to be training another, and she was not in fact teaching her indifference, as I had surmised; but kicking ass and making me feel small and miserable. I felt like the crotchety neighbor who steals the kid’s ball when it comes into his yard, just because he’s having a bad day.

I know when I’m whipped. I will call that General Manager, my tail between my legs. I will write a positive review and post it to Trip Advisor. And from now on, I will regard every bad review I encounter about any restaurant with healthy skepticism, and think twice before ….

… “Hey! Where’s my drink? You know how long I’ve been sitting here?! Just wait ‘til I get to my computer, you snot-nosed little” ….

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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