Published: 14:27, February 21, 2024 | Updated: 17:06, February 21, 2024
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Dining ratings: trust or trouble?
By Gui Qian

Debates arise over restaurant ratings' reliability as patrons turn to lower-rated spots, disrupting conventional dining norms and posing dilemmas for restaurant owners, Gui Qian reports.

The hot pot restaurant of Zhao Yige is decorated with a youthful aesthetic, incorporating trendy colors and slang slogans. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

It is a common practice to check review sites before settling on a new restaurant for a meal. But can we always trust these ratings? And does a higher score always mean better quality?

After renowned food connoisseur Chen Xiaoqing suggested checking out eateries with ratings between 3.5 and 4 points (out of 5) in an interview, a recent debate has ignited across Chinese social media. This sparked discussions on whether these slightly lower-rated spots might offer even better dining experiences.

More and more patrons, disappointed by the quality of numerous highly-rated restaurants, are now gravitating toward more modest eateries in hopes of uncovering unexpectedly delightful dishes.

Hashtags such as "Youth flocking to 3.5-point restaurants in a 'revenge culinary' trend" and "The best flavors might be hiding in less acclaimed dining spots" are buzzing on Sina Weibo, and accumulating millions of views.

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Amy Wang (pseudonym), hailing from Qingdao, Shandong province, has a knack for discovering these "hidden gems" and she shares her insights on rating apps.

As a part-time food blogger, Wang has visited over 200 restaurants in just six months and even received the "Magical Comment Award "from Dianping, a major Chinese online platform for local services and reviews.

According to Wang, the trend of favoring lower-rated restaurants reflects a growing distrust in the rating system, especially among young diners. Ultra-high scores are not always reliable, as they can be artificially inflated through various means.

For example, some restaurants might offer incentives like complimentary dishes or discounts for positive reviews, and others might train staff to leave reviews on behalf of customers, or even pay for professional services to raise their scores.

"Even labels like 'locals' favorite' might be obtained through deceit — some places hire internet ghostwriters using local IP addresses," Wang explained.

Given these issues, food enthusiasts have realized that solely relying on ratings isn't the most dependable way to choose restaurants of better quality.

"The years a restaurant has been operating also matter, since most dining places struggle to survive beyond six months," Wang said. "An older establishment must be doing something right to thrive in such a competitive industry."

Reading through comments, especially the negative ones, can also be enlightening, according to Wang. "It helps you figure out if the criticism is about service, ambiance, or food quality, and whether you can overlook it. But you should also be wary of overly detailed comments with lots of words and pictures because they are often insincere," she said.

Sometimes, 5-star restaurants can be overrated, but that doesn't mean that poorly-rated ones always offer a stellar culinary experience.

As Wang pointed out, circumstances vary greatly in different places. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where nearly every aspect of life is tied to the internet's rating system, ratings can be reliable. Surprises are more likely in less-developed areas, where online ratings aren't as meticulously managed, and customers aren't as keen on sharing their experiences on social media.

Wang's most memorable experience at a "3.5-point restaurant" happened in a small town in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province. "I visited a place with only two reviews on Dianping, and to my surprise, I had the best remipi (rice slices) of my life," she recalled. "It shows that there are some undiscovered culinary delights yet to be acknowledged by the rating system."

Having worked in Beijing for over seven years, Wang still considers herself a beipiao, or "Beijing drifter".She focuses on exploring modest eateries suitable for solo diners on a budget, dubbing her food blog account "Dagongren Meishi Tujian", or Illustrated Handbook of Food for Laborers.

Like most ordinary workers, especially young people, Wang doesn't have many opportunities for fine dining, but she enjoys grassroots foods like fried chicken, beef noodles, and malatang, a spicy Sichuan broth with meat and vegetables. "Eateries selling these foods typically receive lower ratings compared to high-end restaurants. But I believe that authentic culinary delights are abundant in everyday life," she said.

Eat? Or not?

While ratings can sometimes confuse diners, they also raise concerns for restaurant owners.

I hope this trend continues, pushing more shop owners to focus on what’s truly important for a restaurant — taste and service.

Zhao Yige, a restaurant owner

Zhao Yige, 27, is a novice manager running a Chongqing hot pot restaurant in Beijing. Since its soft opening in early January, the store has received about 10 reviews on Dianping, all positive with at least 4 points. However, the overall score stands at 3.8 points, which Zhao finds disappointing.

She explained that review sites use complicated formulas for generating scores, which are not solely based on customer ratings. In this digital age, even a reduction of 0.1 points in rating can lead to reduced exposure, resulting in a drop in customers and revenue.

Bothered by the low score, Zhao plans to make changes. Once her restaurant officially opens after Spring Festival, she will purchase a membership with the review sites, which will allow her to access more features for business owners, such as uploading home page pictures and videos, as well as managing customer messages more effectively.

"I can tell that the review sites want restaurants to encourage customers to leave comments and make payments through the platform, both of which would boost scores," Zhao said.

According to her, highly-rated places also get certain privileges. For instance, only those with 4.5 points or above can sell group coupons on the platform.

"I feel caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, I know food quality is crucial, and customers don't want to be unduly influenced. On the other hand, ratings do matter, so despite my hesitation, I've instructed our staff to remind customers to rate us when appropriate," she said.

Zhao also has her eye on young people, who are active on social media and could become voluntary promoters for her store if guided properly. She has decorated her restaurant with a youthful aesthetic, using trendy colors and slang slogans. She also plans to set up a dessert stall in the hall and conduct livestreams on platforms like Douyin and Xiaohongshu.

Upon hearing about the trend of lower-rated restaurants getting more popular, Zhao welcomes it. "This shows that customers are becoming more discerning and hold more diverse standards," she said. "I hope this trend continues, pushing more shop owners to focus on what's truly important for a restaurant — taste and service."

A takeout tale

Apart from dining in restaurants, takeout is another common choice for daily meals, especially among young people. However, Tan Binbin from Chongqing noted that the trend of choosing moderately-rated eateries hasn't extended to the field of takeout.

Ratings are supposed to be helpful. They just need to be fairer and more representative.

Tan Binbin, a restaurant consultant

Tan, formerly a manager of a leading takeout app in China, is now working as an independent consultant for takeout restaurants. He explained that the logic and algorithm of ratings differ between review sites and takeout platforms. For example, the rating system for food delivery platforms like Meituan and Eleme is much simpler — it uses a dynamically changing model that calculates the average points received over the past 30 days.

"This means the scores are mainly decided by customers rather than complicated rules set by platforms. It also allows restaurant owners to quickly respond to low ratings and improve within a couple of days. Because of this, ratings on takeout apps are usually higher than those on review sites," Tan explained.

"For many takeout customers, 4 points is usually the lowest acceptable score. They think a rating lower than that indicates serious problems with the restaurant," he added.

According to Tan, customers' concerns about takeouts are even greater than those about regular restaurants. For example, hygiene is a primary worry, especially for places that offer only takeout with no dine-in service. These stores often operate in back streets or alleys, giving off an unclean impression. Heavy use of instant cooking packages is another issue.

Tan pointed out that rice bowls of braised pork, fish-flavored pork slices, and steamed pork with preserved vegetables are popular takeout dishes as common categories of precooked food.

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Although the "low-rated restaurant trend" doesn't apply to takeouts, he said that he understands people's rebellious thoughts about the high ratings on platforms.

"We live in a world surrounded by ratings. We check scores and reviews not only when choosing a restaurant or ordering takeout, but also before online shopping and watching films," Tan said. "Ratings are supposed to be helpful. They just need to be fairer and more representative."

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