The Food Issue: Spoon, advise, yelp!

Meet four of the area’s most active online restaurant reviewers.

Posted by Meaghan Habuda on Wed, Jun 11, 2014 at 12:01 PM

Some of them are frequent travelers, others are bloggers and a few got tired of the hooey written by other users and review websites.

Locals Ariana Lee-Fisher, Steve Elliot, Crystal Hamilton and David Jenkins are among the chowhounds producing reviews of Tampa Bay eateries on a regular basis. And for diners near and far, prestige in the online restaurant reviewing world comes easily enough.

Write a sufficient number of reviews, build a rapport with fellow users, and become an “elite” Yelper or a “prime” member on Urbanspoon. TripAdvisor may even mail off complimentary photo albums to recognize frequent reviewers, and for some, like Jenkins, such perks keep them sharing their experiences online.

Jenkins, 40, who’s well-known locally as the producing artistic director of Jobsite Theater, said accepting the photo albums doesn’t bother him as a reviewer. He said TripAdvisor’s survival depends on user-generated content, and the albums are sent after he submits multiple ratings or reviews, never before.

“They’re not telling me how to review, but they’re saying ‘thank you’ in a promotional way,” Jenkins said.

He has accounts on Yelp and Urbanspoon, too, but is most active on TripAdvisor, using it to find where regulars eat when he’s dining locally or on vacation.

Yelper Ariana Lee-Fisher - ARIANA LEE-FISHER
  • Ariana Lee-Fisher
  • Yelper Ariana Lee-Fisher
Before they started writing reviews, all four foodies visited review sites to scope out restaurants they’d never tried, reflecting the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 National Household Survey that found 34 percent of diners say it’s likely that user-review services will influence where they eat.

Lee-Fisher, a 29-year-old sign language interpreter in Tampa, said online restaurant reviewing — “reliving” her experience and putting it to keyboard — is a hobby, but that Yelp also helps her save money. She said she’s avoided dining at places with less than four-star ratings since 2010 because she kept leaving eateries disappointed.

Forty-year-old Tampa resident Elliot, who also reviews on Yelp and travels often with the consulting firm he owns, said he started reading diner reviews four years ago. He said he tends to rate restaurants more highly than some of his compatriots do, in part because he typically frequents mom-and-pop spots.

“I’ll be the first to say it’s subjective,” Elliot said. “If the food stinks, I will say so, but I won’t go out of my way to bash a restaurant ... I would rather give constructive criticism.”

Sometimes online reviewers’ scores harmonize with what the area’s paid food critics say, and other times they don’t.

CL restaurant critic Jon Palmer Claridge granted Pane Rustica three and a half stars in January of this year; the following month, Hamilton, 30, a pharmacy technician and blogger living in Pinellas Park, followed suit with the same rating on Yelp. Two years ago, however, there was a distinct pro/am discrepancy: the Tampa Bay Times’ Laura Reiley gave the South Tampa restaurant three stars in December 2012, a month after Lee-Fisher gave it a measly one-star rating. (CL and the online reviewers use a five-point rating scale, and the Times uses four.)

Another popular Tampa spot, Seminole Heights’ The Refinery, has done well with online reviewers: four stars from Lee-Fisher in May 2012, five from Jenkins in 2013 and from Elliot in 2014. The pros have been slightly less adoring but very positive nonetheless: In April 2013, Claridge gave The Refinery three and a half stars, and in April 2010 Reiley gave it three. She included both Pane Rustica and The Refinery in her 2012 and 2014 lists of the region’s top 50 restaurants.

The critical styles of the online reviewers vary.

Lee-Fisher is detailed and precise, even when she’s had a bad encounter. She said restaurant owners have a right to know what diners are experiencing.

Elliot usually tries to provide background on a restaurant’s history to capture people’s attention, while Hamilton breaks down her review into sections, occasionally labeling each with headings like “the good,” “the meh” and “the ugly.”

TripAdvisor user David Jenkins - MEAGHAN HABUDA
  • Meaghan Habuda
  • TripAdvisor user David Jenkins
Although Jenkins’ reviews tend to be shorter than the Yelpers’, he gets straight to the point with colorful lingo like “puh-lease” and “sammiches” in all caps.

Like the other reviewers, Hamilton said she’s received feedback on her reviews from restaurant owners.

When owners reply to negative reviews, according to Lee-Fisher and Elliot, they’re appreciative of the criticisms and even propose free meals. Neither of them have followed up on the offers, and all four online reviewers say they have never received compensation for writing a review.

Many critics who review restaurants for a living dine at the places they’re reviewing more than once, and Hamilton said she does the same when she’s able to. Jenkins said he ate at a restaurant in the area six times before giving it a bad review, acknowledging in his criticism that it was praised by others but wasn’t for him.

“There’s an ethical consideration there,” he said of firing off at restaurants through online reviews. “And I think we as humans tend to forget that on the Internet.”

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