Too many Yelps spoil the meal for this diner
This summer, a friend visited from New York City, and, with a New Yorker's confidence, she suggested that we eat at Vedge, the renowned vegan restaurant run by Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby.
I told her we'd never get a reservation. She called, got us a slot at 9:30, then suggested we show up at 7:30 and see what happened. The host graciously seated us at a high-top table near the bar, and we set off on what would become one of my favorite dining experiences in my 10 years in Philadelphia.
We ordered four small plates, and each provided a rainbow of color, a riot of flavor, and textures that left us wondering repeatedly, "What was that?"
I loved every bite, especially a beet salad that was so enlivened by contrasting tastes and textures that I made a mental note to look up the menu later, so that I could try to replicate it at home.
By the time we'd finished our Grüner Veltliner and moved on to dessert, we were high on the good company, the virtuousness of a vegan meal, and the realization that we'd just enjoyed some of the best cooking in Philadelphia or New York. We walked around the city for a while, then I hopped on my train back to Glenside and came home with the glow that comes with a fun night in Philadelphia.
I was still thinking about those beets, though. I opened up my browser, and thought about going directly to Vedge's website. Instead, I went to opinion site Yelp. Perhaps I was wondering if other people had been as entranced as I was by Landau's vision.
On Yelp, I found 523 reviews of Vedge. Open Table, a site that helps users secure reservations and share opinions, had 428 reviews. Yes, nearly 1,000 people had published reviews of a vegan restaurant that has been open for less than three years. This doesn't begin to count reviews posted on travel websites, foodie blogs, and the professional criticism of writers like The Inquirer's Craig LaBan.
The rare negative reviews focused mostly on the price and the delicate portion sizes. Ben C. says he promised his wife: "It's OK, we can eat more when we get home." Ray P. writes, "If I wanted to split a baby carrot with my date, I would have filched it from my pet rabbit."
Most reviewers were just as enamored as I was. But even as I read their raves, I felt my glow start to fade. After a while, the abundance of opinion began to smother my enjoyment of that one perfect dinner. Overreading, it seems, is a bit like overeating; it's easy to pass the point of satisfaction, and wind up feeling queasy from excess.
The democratization of criticism has allowed ordinary folks to express their opinions on everything, from illegal immigration to celebrity culture to food. At its best, criticism from the masses offers intriguing contrasts to the opinions of the experts. At its worst, it can be virulent and libelous.
The Internet's insta-critics were pretty harmless in their reviews of Vedge. But before long, I had to step away, determined to preserve my thoughts without the taint of strangers' opinions. It had been a lovely evening, and I knew I'd remember the explosion of flavors and the painterly presentation of the food all on my own.
As for those beets, the rest of the salad involves avocado, smoked tofu, rye, capers, and creamy cucumber. You should try it. They love it on Yelp.
Eileen Glanton Loftus is a freelance writer in Glenside