Coronavirus Response: New York City's Restaurant Disaster

Diners eat lunch in outdoor seating in New York, June 22, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

To read the one-star reviews on Yelp is to take a stroll into CrazyTown. In contrast to the five-star reviews, all of which sound like auditions to be “foodie writers” by people who seriously overestimate the importance of a tasty banh mi, the one-star reviews are often built around insane temper tantrums specific to the personality of the diner or the circumstances of one particular visit. One chap ranted about how he asked about the oysters and then got angry when he tried to order two of them and was told the minimum order was half a dozen. Many other poor reviews turn on a waitress appearing snooty or taking too long to come to the table. Restaurant proprietors frequently respond by hurling themselves at the feet of the diner and begging forgiveness.

Yelp has just added features designed to single out restaurants accused of racism. This sounds like a bad idea.


Sometimes people are jerks, regardless of race. Sometimes people are busy, again regardless of race. Sometimes waitresses mess up orders, ditto. Sometimes people are in bad moods, ditto. And if you dine someplace like New York City or Los Angeles, where the waitstaff are often struggling actors and many of their self-perceptions are built around having been the most beautiful and talented person in their high school or college, you should hardly be surprised if they sometimes act as though it’s a little demeaning to sling hash for a living. Also, they’re on their feet for hours, so cut them some slack.

A tag such as, “This business has been accused of racism” is going to create a confirmation-bias problem; people will go to the restaurant expecting racism and eager to snitch, regardless of whether whatever might go wrong has a racial component. After a few of these reports, the business will get obliterated, and everyone who works there will be out of a job, regardless of whether they are racially enlightened and regardless of their race. Also, ahem, people sometimes lie about what happened to them at a restaurant to make a sociopolitical point.

Yelp is already a thicket of misunderstandings. I doubt that encouraging diners to ascribe bad restaurant experiences to racism is going to accomplish anything good, but the bad is pretty easy to foresee: lots of people getting fired, and businesses getting shut down, because of misunderstandings, grouchiness, routine errors, or even outright lies.

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