Anonymous online reviews affecting Twin Cities eateries

Heartland's Lenny Russo says some of it "borders on libel"

They gripe about their server tacking the gratuity onto their bill, without realizing that the sum was actually the valet parking charge. They fault the pulled pork for being "too shredded," when, by definition, that's exactly what pulled pork is. They complain that the appetizer is too small—"a 3/4-inch diameter of food on a big plate, about 1/4 of what I would expect"—not recognizing the absurdity of such a large portion of foie gras. They air their criticisms to everyone on the internet, but rarely share them directly with the chef. These are the anonymous commenters on local restaurant review sites, message boards, and blogs: a source of both delight and ire to the local restaurant community.

Restaurants have long been subjected to professional critics—I dug up a New York Times review published in 1859. But increasingly restaurateurs find themselves being critiqued by anyone with an internet connection. Few other professions face such public scrutiny. You don't read many blogs that assess the efficiency of a particular computer programmer's code or the speed at which a certain farmer milks his cows. While service-industry workers certainly deal with their share of public feedback, the skills of hairdressers, tailors, and mechanics are perceived to be a bit more mysterious than those of chefs. How many people cut their own hair, sew their own clothes, or fix their own cars, compared to those who make their own dinner?

Thus an inordinate amount of online chatter—on blogs, message boards, and review sites—is devoted to restaurants. When I last checked the review site Yelp, it listed 130 reviews in Minneapolis's Beauty and Spas category, 225 in Nightlife, 476 in Shopping, and 898 in Restaurants. The commentary is by and large positive, and restaurants for the most part are grateful to have their praises sung further and faster than they would by word-of-mouth. Several restaurateurs I spoke with said they also appreciate critical but respectful online feedback as a tool to help them improve their business.

Heartland's Lenny Russo will gladly tell amateur critics what they're eating, like this barley risotto with chicken
Jana Freiband
Heartland's Lenny Russo will gladly tell amateur critics what they're eating, like this barley risotto with chicken

But negative anonymous reviews are murkier territory. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, certainly, and relaying one's experience with sub-par food and service can be a valuable warning to would-be diners. But many restaurateurs say they have received criticism they felt was false, unfair, or malicious—which they had little ability to correct or refute. They were deeply troubled to know that, with a cursory Google search, such messages could reach potential customers for the foreseeable future.

"Hopefully the people reading understand that the writer is ignorant."

Lenny Russo, chef-owner of the upscale Midwest-focused eatery Heartland, says that often the inaccuracies he sees in online comments are minor. A person might, for example, describe a meal at Heartland that included rice and pineapple salsa—two foods the restaurant doesn't serve. "Maybe it was wheat berries or barley, and it was squash that they thought was pineapple," Russo says. "Hopefully the people reading understand that the writer is ignorant."

But he has also seen broad mischaracterizations of his restaurant spread rapidly around cyberspace. He was particularly exasperated by one commenter who complained about Heartland's small portions: "I think I could have gotten more food walking around the taste testers at Sam's Club," she penned. "She didn't really understand what we were doing," Russo says.

Chef Russell Klein, who owns Meritage with his wife, Desta, recalls one incident in which a family brought along a baby who cried loudly throughout their leisurely meal. The adults made no effort to quiet the baby as it continued to disturb other guests' enjoyment of the restaurant's quaint, romantic ambiance. Looking out for the interests of other diners—some of whom had certainly paid for babysitters—Klein says Desta politely asked the woman if she'd like to take the baby out in the hallway to soothe it. The woman responded by making a scene about being "kicked out" and writing a rant that she posted on several restaurant-related sites.

I looked up the screed: "She was the meanest and rudest restaurant owner I had ever seen!" it reads. "A person who can not comprehend that a 10-month-old baby is not able to behave at 7 p.m. can no way make the rest of the customers happy." Although Desta did post a response, the original comment remains. "If somebody puts something out that's biased, unfair, or untrue," Klein says, "it lives forever."

Russo says he's learned to ignore criticism—he gets his fair share from the comments section of his blog on StarTribune.com—though he and other restaurateurs are especially sensitive to unfair comments about their customers or staff. Erica Christ, owner of the Black Forest, recalls one online commenter who complained that a server was flirting with diners at another table and described the server's appearance so specifically that she was easily identifiable. Elijah Goodwell, manager of the Birchwood Cafe, says he was particularly upset by disparaging remarks about two groups of valued customers: cyclists, who were described as "older flabby spandex-wearing bikers jockeying for first place like it was the friggin Tour de France," and kids, of which the commenter wrote: "OMG! Do they really have to eat out? Can't you leave them at home and throw them some kibble when you return?"

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