I find myself, from time to time, perusing tripadvisor, yelp, urbanspoon, and other review sites reading reviews from top restaurants from around the world. Recently I read reviews from the 10 best new restaurants of 2010 just announced by Bon Appetite magazine. I usually don't read the great and good reviews; the 4 and 5 star reviews. What I normally head straight for are the poor and terrible, 1 and 2 star, reviews, and then will take in a few of the average rating reviews. I don't do this because I take joy in the failings of another restaurant but because I am facinated by those who just have not found said restaurant as amazing as the vast majority of the other reviewers. I mean, why is it out of every 100 reviews there will always be around 10 who have deemed the dinning experience to be average to terrible? It seems no matter how esteemed the restaurant, it will always have around 10% of the posted reviews come in at the average to terrible rating. I have read reviews for the top 10 restaurants in the world from tripadvisor and yelp and found even these restaurants having around 6%-10% of said reviews in the average to terrible range. Facsinating!!
Why? Who makes up this 10%-ish diners who post such harsh reviews? I'm sure some of this group is made up of those who want to be "the one" who found whatever top restaurant wanting, but these people really only make up a small minority of a already minority group and are not even worth the trouble thinking about. There will always be those who want to be the one who calls the Emporer out for wearing no cloths.
Others may have caught the restaurant on an off day. Even the best of the best chefs and kitchens in the world have bad days where the mojo just isn't clicking. And, very often the disappointing dinner may be a slip up amoungst a world of otherwise very happy eaters. I'm not sure why this happens, but I have experienced it in my kitchens, having a table where it seems everything just goes wrong or at least not as spot on as it should be; where no matter how hard we try it just seems everything going on with a certian table, or even the single guest, just isn't what everyone else has experienced. Where it seems all the small things begin to add up to a real disaster of a dinner.
I also have to wonder if some people just don't get what the restaurant is trying to do. I've read some scathing reviews of Noma, El Bulli, the Fat Duck, El Celler da Con Roca, Mugaritz (the top 5 restaurants in the world) from tripadvisor reviewers who had nothing, and I mean nothing, nice to say about the food. Is it possible that most of these reviewers just did not understand the food they were being served? But the problem is this, not everyone who posted bad reviews are novice eaters. Many of the posters are experienced at eating in top restaurants.
For me it is one of those things I can, and do, spend time mulling over. What makes a great restaurant? Is it inherently great or is it great because the vast majority of the diners who have eaten there say it's great. Are there great restaurants in the world that are truly great but don't fare so well when it comes to review time? You know, like someone who may do poorly on tests but great in the real world application. How much weight should we put in those bottom 10% reviews. How serious should we as chef's take the bottom 10% reviews. I know I pay attention to them but I find myself wondering is there is really something to fix or is this a blip in an otherwise fine operation. I don't think I'll ever figure it out, but it's fun to think about.