My wife and I have just completed a week in the Tuscan heartland of Italy. I’m a great fan of Italy; not just for its beautiful countryside, women, medieval villages, clothes, shoes, women, exquisite sports cars and, of course, the stylish women, but also for its food and wine. Never mind the French; they just took the Italian techniques and pretended they were their own. But the Italians, they invented good food in our western world and for that I am eternally grateful.
We were seated, one lunchtime, at a restaurant in a beautifully-preserved small walled town. Having ordered our food, and while contemplating its arrival and sipping our wine, I decided to check up the restaurant on TripAdvisor. And boy, had we made a mistake. According to the anonymous reviews, the food was going to be awful, the service was going to get up our nose and, all in all, according to some of the reviews, we should avoid the place like the plague.
I watched the waiting staff who, while a little stressed due to being unexpectedly busy and a touch difficult to pin down, were ok as far as I could see – and I do have some experience in these matters. I was wondering though if maybe we should cancel the food when it was too late because it arrived. So, with some trepidation, we started to eat, and completed, what turned out to be quite a treat. We were enjoying the wine too, to such an extent that we ordered some more and desserts to follow the main courses. Sitting in the sun and consuming good Italian food and wine was why we’d travelled 1,200 miles. This was heaven.
So, I thought, why the appalling reviews? One person had actually screamed in capital letters: “DON’T GO THERE” and mentioned that the restaurant used (shock and horror) “paper table cloths” as if that was a reason for denigrating someone’s passion and livelihood. It seemed I should try and redress the balance by posting my own TripAdvisor experience. So, using my phone, I laboriously typed in a pretty good account of of our time there and, to check it sounded ok before uploading it, read it aloud to my wife, giving the restaurant a score of four out of five. Which rather upset the Dutch chap at the next table who couldn’t believe we were at the same restaurant. He hated it, and his children weren’t too happy either – at least according to him.
He showed me his food; food that I wouldn’t have ordered but that’s his prerogative. We’d gone for local dishes hoping that that’s where their experience lay. His party had gone for generic stuff and it didn’t look as good as ours. Was that his problem?
He was certainly dismayed that there weren’t enough staff on but, I thought, how could they have known how busy they were going to be? Neither of our parties had booked in advance and we’d just dropped in.
He said he was going to put his own review on TripAdvisor to redress the balance following mine. Is that fair? Was the restaurant to blame for him not enjoying his time there? Or were we major contributors to our individual experiences?
I’ve no problem with the critical appraisal of restaurants, or with any other business serving the general public come to that. But the reviews I tend to take seriously are those of experienced reviewers, who put their name to it, who know what they’re ordering and how to compare like with like. Can you compare a McDonald’s with the Fat Duck? And if you did, would it be fair?
And who are the reviewers on TripAdvisor anyway? You may say that they’re holidaymakers just like you and me. But are they? I eat out a lot. Do they? I’ve travelled extensively. Is this their first time? Has he just had an argument with her? Or has the dog just died? And what’s the comeback on an incorrect review from an inexperienced, already grumpy diner that’s in the wrong sort of restaurant leaving a comment while remaining anonymous – and using appalling grammar?
If we’d followed the advice of some of those who’d reviewed on TripAdvisor we’d never had eaten there or had that major contribution to our holiday. But if our adjoining table had followed that advice, they may have enjoyed their holiday more. Or would they?
Food for thought.
Previously published in The Northern Echo