Mar 31, 2009, 07:13AM

From the Horse's Mouth

Restaurant-review message boards are the best source for new dining options, and they also provide an awkwardly human element that standard reviews ignore.

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It seems like everywhere I look I’m connected without my permission to a wacky weird world of strangers and what they are thinking, feeling, seeing, doing at any moment. With reality TV and the Internet broadcasting live anything from sodomy to suicide, we learn surprisingly intimate things about our fellow humans from an increasingly bizarre array of places.

Even from restaurant user reviews. We’ve all seen the bad ones: the rats running under the tables, the teeth in the beef stroganoff. This goes beyond that. It’s not about the restaurant or bar anymore. It’s about the people. What we’re feeling. User reviews were supposed to win future costumers or scare them away, right? You know, how’s the ambiance, how’s the parking situation, is this place good for a first date? Not anymore.

On Yelp, Chris G. wrote this last March about the Alta Coffee House:

The two baristas at Alta were the dichotomy to an ancient Greek Tragedy and Comedy the night I went. It was the tale of two baristas. The guy with a beard and tattoos was so jovial while the guy with a cast on his hand was so jaded that both were in stark contrast to each other. While I preferred jovial with tattoos, jaded I was sympathetic to. Jovial was so helpful, he gave me three alternative routes to getting out of the peninsula if I was to get lost and somehow miss the very obvious bridge. ?
Jaded was so miserable, I purposely took an extra second to get my money out a little longer to watch him get increasingly irritated. He was so moody while he was making the drinks, it was funny to watch his uninhibited emotions and curt responses to the demanding atmosphere around him. Hey, it's tough to steam drinks with a cast and it's impossible to do much else like swim, hold beer, jack off and use TiVo with your left hand. There's probably too many lonely nights with his five huskies at his parents' mansion off Newport Coast. Cheer up, sad one.
Huh. I wonder what Chris is doing right now…

I find myself relying more and more on online guides likeYelp, Citysearch, Cityguide, Chowhound, Menupages, Metromix, LA Weekly, and other sites to bring me to the right place for eat and drink. Word of mouth just isn’t enough anymore, and though there are scores of award-winning food critics using their vast knowledge to steer me to culinary glory, I find I don’t barely listen to them anymore. I want to hear from people like me. People who were just there.

So I go to these user reviews. Maybe I read them too closely. I listen to Chris G. and the gastronomic avatars like him—and there are lots of them, pages and pages of them (many have hundreds of reviews under their belts and cult followings). Some bars and restaurants feature over 1000 reviews ranging from the banal to the bizarre. In each restaurant I look for the grotesque, the horrific, the romantic, the worshipful. The fried chicken blew my mind, the waitress saved my baby from choking, the tablecloths were covered in blood.

Matt C. of Sacramento was so pissed about a restaurant’s signage that he signed on and wrote this tidbit last December:
2 Da ownur of dis joynt : U-R-A gr8t spellr.??Yur syne sez:  "DINNING NIGHTLY".??Evry tym i paz bi, wee R laffing 4 ur gr8t syne!  ??Kepe upp da gud wrk!!!
Some are just plain cryptic. “Luna Park is populated with the type of person,” Matthew from L.A. wrote,  “whom you think is your friend, but whom is secretly ignoring your phone calls.”  

Julienne from New York even had a self-reflexive description about the very process of writing a review covering a local Los Angeles Olive Garden. “Yelping the Olive Garden,” says she, “is a little bit like kicking somebody who's been dead for six days.”  

Surely the main attraction when visiting the user review pages is the linguistically graphic/personal information given by patrons who find they simply must relate their experiences to us via rambling nonsense. The Hemlock Tavern for instance, a popular San Francisco live music joint and restaurant had 446 Yelp reviews at the time of this writing and featured these little stories….

CEC. C. from Oakland wrote on February 26:
This place will not be 5 stars for everyone. Yes, the bartenders will ignore you for a long ass time, especially if you are me and are bartender-attention-getting-challenged. ?But...??On a second or third date with B, we went here to see Rum Diary and he finally kissed me for the first time. So five stars for that.

Pamela D from Seattle wasn’t as pleased about the attention she got:
Sorry, Hemlock Tavern is NOT a dive bar. If there are at least 5 Marina dudes, and more than 10 hipsters, simple mathematics will tell you that Hemlock is just another freaking bar.
Dude bro dude man with your popped collar, I'm pretty sure I'm not the only chick with tattoos that you've seen in your entire lifetime so please get over it. Lady chick girlfriend with the coke leaking out of your nose, don't waste that shit. Hipsters are so dumb. Bros are so annoying.…

Some even update their reviews to reveal more about themselves.

Nikki from San Francisco wrote in 2008: “It's dark in there and I always feel like there are illicit things going on. I guess that's why I kinda like it.”

And this Feb 22 : “how come every time I come here I never remember it? I think as far as bar reviews goes that is a good sign.”

Sam from Oakland gives us a vivid picture of the already described drink slingers and the bar’s outside surroundings:
Really really hipster and the bartenders all act like they all went to the beach and got sand in their cooters…I'll probably go back if I find myself wandering around on Polk afraid of getting stabbed.

Repeated ventures to Hemlock must have put Devon F. in an expansive mood:
I am good buddies with a couple. And unlike most annoying pairs, I genuinely don't mind playing third wheel as they are both wonderful individuals on their own and are never obnoxious when together. However, I have one issue with the little trio we've developed when I hitch onto their weekend activities. You see, I'm tall. She's tall (5'11) and he's tall (6'4). It's cute. In their eyes, however, it'd be a lot cuter if I had a tall boyfriend so that OMG OMG DOUBLE DATING! And so whenever we go out, they both pimp me out to men. For over a year, they've been trying to hook me up with a mutual friend. He's a cool guy and aesthetically is right up my alley and not to mention tall, but there is ZERO attraction on both sides. Chemistry and mushy gushy feelings are kinda important, y'know??After she put a caption on a facebook photo of the two of us with "Aw...," I called her and channeled my best Regina George: "We are not going to happen. ____ and I are not going to happen. STOP TRYING TO MAKE US HAPPEN!" ??
Sort of like Hemlock Tavern. The couple and I head here often, and as much as I WANT to like the place, I never do. I SHOULD like it. It's full of a fun mix of people and I've enjoyed many a tasty redheaded slut at the bar (get your head out of the gutter. there's only been one of THAT kind and he was in Oakland).

I don’t mean to make it seem that the majority of reviews are negative. On the contrary, most entries are merely simple praises. Love the pastrami! Best croissants outside of Paris! Of course the praise can go a bit overboard. Take Jason D. of Los Angeles. Dude is so fond of Factor’s Deli that he added this as a kind of culinary last rite: “When i die, i want to be pickled in whatever they use to make their cucumbers pickle...”

And Amy L. wrote about rival Canter’s deli, “My partner's Reuben had him moaning and barely coming up for air!  Let's just say he was a happy boy.”

And finally, if this proves anything, it’s that people are listening. Back at Luna Park in Los Angeles, Kate showed just how greasy her wheel could get:
When they [waitstaff] finally did come, one of my friend's napkins was covered in hair.  Most people probably wouldn't notice or care, but Katherine is not that person.  This sort of thing sets an entire mood for her.  Minutes after the napkin debacle, she reached for the salt.  Oops.  Salt top was entirely unscrewed, and it spilled EVERYWHERE.  No less than four staff members came over, not to help, but to gawk…
EDIT -- Upon seeing this review, the owner of Luna Park contacted me. He sent me a generous gift certificate to use on another dinner. I will be doing so soon and will amend my review accordingly.  YAY


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