Easy to feel for restaurants angered by bad reviews written by ill-informed diners in the safety of cyberspace.

It would take a hard heart not to feel some degree of sympathy for the restaurant owners who have come out swinging against anonymous reviews and the websites that carry them.

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'When it comes to reviews, the ability to eat is not enough'

As someone who has written restaurant reviews for this newspaper's Sunday sister for more than 10 years, I can understand the meltdown of Molten's Sven Nielsen.

The owner of the upmarket Mt Eden bistro, which in my own experience and that of people I respect is reliably excellent, was incensed by a review on the website Zomato.

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The review, bylined Irish Eyes, described a meal at Molten as "the worst dining out experience ever": chicken, wrapped in prosciutto (that "looked more like bacon to me"), was too salty and some of the roast vegetables were overcooked.

If those faults can make a meal the worst of a lifetime, the writer must make a habit of eating at some pretty swanky establishments. In any case, Nielsen hit back by reviewing the customers, whom he described as "rather rude", on the restaurant's Facebook page.

The alleged prosciutto was in fact pancetta (a salt-cured pork-belly bacon), he wrote, and the chicken was brined (both these facts are mentioned in the menu description). An astute diner might have seen the salt coming, he said, but if it came as a surprise, the ideal time to complain would have been as soon as they noticed, not just after they had licked the plate clean. (This is why waiting staff are instructed to check after a few minutes that everything's all right at your table).

Sven Nielsen, owner of Molten Restaurant. Photo / Supplied
Sven Nielsen, owner of Molten Restaurant. Photo / Supplied

Nielsen's response is forgivable, and was doubtless cathartic for him, but he was fighting a war that has long ago been lost. The trouble, to paraphrase the tagline of that great sci-fi film Alien, is that in cyberspace, anyone can hear you scream.

Whether that scream is intelligible, much less intelligent, is another matter. But that's not a problem unique to online restaurant reviews: it's a problem online, where 99 per cent of what appears is unmediated and unedited crap.

As a rule, I think that New Zealanders don't complain enough about poor standards " in restaurants and in other areas of life. We complain about it under our breath and say, "We just won't go back." When I hear that, I always say, "Yep, that'll teach them."

The poor review of Molten on Zomato. Photo / Zomato
The poor review of Molten on Zomato. Photo / Zomato

The "won't go back" approach is the one endorsed by Jonny Rudduck, who makes great Roman-style pizza in his tiny Ponsonby Rd eatery, Il Buco.

"If you don't enjoy something just don't go back," he said in response to the Molten exchange. "Tell your friends, do whatever, but God, why go online?"

It's an odd response, tantamount to saying that complaining's okay so long as hardly anyone hears. To be consistent, he would have to insist that diners confined their compliments to a small circle of friends, too, but I rather doubt he'd want that.

In any case, Rudduck and Nielsen overestimate the impact of reviews, I think.

At the weekend, I heard that an excellent local eatery, which has had three ecstatic newspaper reviews (and, I see, has a 3.9 out of 5 average on Zomato) is struggling; meanwhile an appalling McItalian, derided by diners and reviewers alike, inexplicably thrives.

As we've fallen foul of a particular diner who placed a rather inaccurate review on Zomato recently, we thought we would...

Posted by Molten on Sunday, 26 April 2015

The real villains of this piece are the sites, which Ruddock described as "parasites ... making money off our hard work". Zomato, founded in India in 2008, is now in 22 countries and is making a mint using content generated for free by reviewers who get a kick out of seeing their name in print.

The non-review information posted is routinely wrong or out of date and its classification system comes up with bizarre anomalies: the evergreen but everyday steakhouse Tony's, for example, appears in the "luxury dining" section of the local site.

Yet establishments are at the mercy of these review-aggregating sites. An owner of a provincial motel lamented to me last month that he couldn't afford not to be on a particular booking website even though they took a 20 per cent cut and bookings made with it could not be altered by negotiation with him.

The internet makes everyone with a keyboard a critic. And it keeps hidden agendas hidden, as we saw this week when a bar manager from one North Shore restaurant penned a caustic review of another.

And it takes a good deal more curiosity and persistence than most casual browsers and surfers employ to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Popular Molten Restaurant has hit back at disgruntled diners, "reviewing them as guests" on Facebook. Should eateries have the right to fight back to online reviews?

Posted by Herald Life on Sunday, April 26, 2015