Dinner (Review) for Schmucks

We made our reservation for Lot 2 a week in advance because the reviews in Yelp told us we should; told us that without the reservation, we’d be stranded for up to two hours waiting for a table for four on a Saturday night.

Long table waits are deal breakers for us. We’ll argue for an hour about which restaurant to go to, then take another half-hour reviewing online menus before Google-mapping the half-hour-plus drive across town (because I’m lost west of 72nd St. and was born without a sense of direction) only to walk out of a restaurant when we find out that the table wait will be more than 20 minutes, inevitably damning me to another in a series of flavorless sandwiches at Panera Bread.

Yelp was designed to help avoid that, and after using it for the past month, I’ve decided that it is, indeed, a useful tool for figuring out if there’s a restaurant nearby, if it’s open and what style of food it serves. Beyond that...

The idea of a website (and iPhone app) that collects civilian (as in non-journalist) restaurant reviews isn’t revolutionary, but up ’til now, none have had Yelp’s impact. Strong Yelp reviews can be the difference between generating buzz and empty tables.

And for many (presumably lonely) people, Yelp is a dream come true. They (like me) grew up fantasizing about being a newspaper restaurant critic (in my case, like the late, great, disgraced hero, Peter Citron), paid to dine at restaurants, carefully considering every bite of every course (including the wine) while quietly making notes in a small, pocket-sized notebook, a maître d' hovering nearby, sweating. Yelp lets anyone live that dream, sort of. For better or worse, now anyone can become a restaurant critic.

After spending time with Yelp, I noticed most of the reviews generally fell into two categories -- gratuitous cheerleading; or bitter, angry personal attacks, with little middle ground. Strangely, whenever browsing the site I would gravitate to the one- or two-star reviews and ignore the five-star spooge-fests. I guess it was just more interesting (and more fun) to read people bitch about restaurant mishaps than to read reviews that went on and on about the sterling food/service/ambiance.

Take, for example, the Yelp reviews for La Casa Pizzeria. Few restaurants in Omaha are as polarizing as La Casa -- people either think La Casa makes the best pizza in the world, or they can’t stand even the smell of it. I fall into the first category, having grown up eating at all three La Casa restaurants (Who remembers the one in Venice, Nebraska?), as theirs was the only pizza my father would eat.

La Casa’s Yelp reviews reflect this division. I browsed right past Ran Y’s “This is the best pizza I ever had” 5-star review and focused on Tim P’s “Appalling from the service to the food, quality a -3.” About halfway through P’s maze of misspellings and trailer-park grammar, I realized maybe his opinion wasn’t exactly relevant. P’s closing barb: “Sorry STRIKE 3 your OUT!!!!  Should've gone to the grocery store bought a Jacks (UGHH) pizza and a bag of salad for less than 10.00.

You can almost see Tim P pounding out the line on his laptop with both fingers -- some guy in a grease-stained “Han Shot First” ringer tee whose idea of good pizza is the place that pumps cheese directly into the dough so the crust resembles his own plaque-blocked arteries.

Still, in Yelp World, Tim P’s voice is as relevant as anyone’s. It’s a democracy of dunces, but it’s all we got. There is no real restaurant criticism left in Omaha. These days, printed restaurant reviews are good-hearted lovefests designed to celebrate all the new, exciting foodie experiences opening daily in the metro area. God forbid someone should write a negative review of a local restaurant -- it might piss off an advertiser at a time when print publications need all the cash they can find. That shouldn’t be a concern for a newspaper recently purchased like a Monopoly game piece by the city’s resident billionaire. Unfortunately, said unnamed newspaper lost whatever credibility it had after word got around that it forced out one of its restaurant critics last year when she refused to rewrite a negative review. 

We’re not immune. The Reader’s own Dish section is mainly news about restaurants and food trends, not straight-up criticism. The editor tells me that with new leadership that will be changing.

Criticism always has been a tough pill for Omahans to swallow, especially when it’s directed at locally produced food, music, art or theater. Voices of dissent are considered traitorous, met with a stern, “Why can’t you support Omaha businesses rather than tear them down?

Well, anyone can tear shit down on Yelp. Even me.

As pathetic as it sounds, I’m becoming a Yelper. I’ve already posted a few reviews, most with 2- and 3-star ratings. Unfortunately, I have the same problem writing Yelp reviews that I have reading them -- it’s easier (and more fun) to write negative reviews than to give credit where credit is due. For example, after a tepid experience at downtown eatery Block 16, I ran home and put it all online; while a recent fantastic dining experience at Nicola’s has gone undocumented (so far).

So how was my dinner at Lot 2? Head to Yelp to find out, because you’re not going to read it here.

Over the Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on arts, culture, society and the media. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 06:24 am
on Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

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