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The Good And Bad Of Online Restaurant Reviews

Before the advent of online restaurant reviews, walking into a new restaurant could be a blind experience. Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Before the advent of online restaurant reviews, walking into a new restaurant could be a blind experience.

Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

One of the annoying things about travel is eating out. Don't get me wrong — I love to try new stuff wherever I go. But I've always found it hard to get locals to point me in the right direction.

Maybe it's just me. But too many people, it seems, eat mainly at Subway and aren't sure where else they should send a visitor.

The great thing about Internet review sites such as Yelp and OpenTable is that you can get help from people who aren't shy about expressing opinions and have, collectively, tried just about every place in town.

Scouting Internet reviews — including those posted on the restaurant pages of alternative weeklies, which tend to review a broader range of places than the big papers —- has helped me find many satisfying meals on the road, from scrumptious fried chicken in Chapel Hill to a great steak and a shot place in Madison.

It's true that every review site has its problems. As my friend Ken points out, one person's bad experience gets magnified 100 times over. And owners and competitors do not shy from trying to stuff the ballot box on customer feedback sites.

The Washington Post had a story the other day about hotels "hounding" guests to write positive reviews.

Relying on the Web for dining advice requires more caution, anyway, than reading online reviews of stereo systems or new digital cameras, because eating is more subjective. Other people are going to have legitimately different taste than you when it comes to determining what's too spicy or simply what's yummy.

And when you're traveling, you notice that online reviewers are just as prone as guidebook authors to tout famous but past their prime restaurants. "We had to wait a long time for a table and the food was kind of bland, but we had a good time. Four stars."

Run the other way.

There's also a problem with places that get legitimately praised, which may turn out to be more trouble than they're worth. Case in point: Recently, The New York Times ran a story about a sandwich shop in San Francisco that has gotten so busy due to online reviews that people have to make reservations or wait in line for two hours —- for a take-out sandwich!

That's the new reality: Web review sites are an increasingly popular place to get dining advice. A National Restaurant Association survey last fall found that about one in five adults post or read reviews on such sites and 26 percent are likely to turn to them for advice about finding new restaurants.

The Internet has forever changed word of mouth when it comes to restaurants.

"In an age of rapid information sharing, the real excitement over a new place happens far in advance of the published review in the paper or magazine," Todd Kliman writes in the current Oxford American. "Someone gets a tip and passes on the news, and a following quickly builds — a kind of culinary equivalent of insider trading."