By Larry Levine –

We’ve known it’s been happening for a long time and now a report in the Sacramento Bee confirms it. In an important story for those who dine out Timothy Sandoval tells of an attempt by a customer to extort favors from a restaurant owner by threatening to post bad reviews at Yelp and other similar websites. The story also touches on the practice by some restaurant owners of planting phony favorable reviews of their own places and negative ones about the competition.

Sandoval tells of a customer who claimed he and his party got food poisening after eating at a Sacramento restaurant. The customer threatened to post negative reviews unless the owner granted him special favors. The restaurant offered a $60 gift card as good will, even though the owner didn’t believe the claim. The customer demanded $100. The restaurant refused.

Yelp claims it has an automated filter to block or eliminate reviews that are biased, phony or malicious. They won’t disclose details lest miscreants learn how to evade the filter.

The practice appears to be so wide spread, however, that restaurant owners have a name for it – Yelp extortion.

There’s little question of the inordinate influence such web sites have in the modern world. Yelp averaged 71 million unique views and 27 million reviews a month worldwide for the first three months of this year. We live in a world where people would rather trust some anonymous texter they read on a hand held device than the word of a friend. And newspaper food sections and restaurant reviews are close to vanishing.

Not long ago a friend told me she and her husband were going out to dinner with another couple. After giving me some general guidelines, she asked if I could recommend a place. I told her I thought they would enjoy Panzanella in Sherman Oaks, CA.

The following Monday I asked how they enjoyed dinner. “We didn’t go to Panzanella,” my friend said. Seems the woman with whom they were going to dine looked up Panzanella on Yelp and “found some negative things” so she didn’t want to go there.

Now, I’ll tell you this – Panzanella is one very fine restaurant. Otherwise Jennifer and I wouldn’t be there four or five times a month. I looked on Yelp and what I found was a sea of four and five star ratings and rave reviews. Yes, there was a stray negative comment here and there in the mix, but there is nothing on Yelp that would cause me to not visit this restaurant.

I don’t use Yelp, Chowhound, Zagat’s or any of the other similar guides when looking for a restaurant. It’s not snobbery; it’s simply a matter of not trusting most people when it comes to restaurants. I live in a city where masses of people think Pink’s Hot Dogs or Dodger Dogs are great – a place where In-and-Out Burger once rated number one in the Zagat guide for most popular restaurants. At the same time, you can call up Melisse on Yelp and find someone saying, “I hate this place.” Melisse is one of my two favorite restaurants in the state. It’s a world class restaurant, Michelin-starred restaurant worthy of a place among the greats of L.A. history.

All this adds up to something we knew when we created the restaurant recommendation web site in 2009. We don’t permit the public to opine about places where they dine. No restaurant owner or his or her family, staff or friends can post raves about their own place or pan the competition. Only the pre-approved co-hosts are allowed to post recommendations at That way, visitors can know they are reading an honest evaluation by a real customer, not by someone with an interest in the restaurant.

Also, doesn’t carry negative reviews. If it isn’t good enough to recommend to a friend, colleague or relative, then it isn’t worthy of our space and time. That’s been the policy at since it was launched. Each of the more than 200 restaurants on the site has been visited by one or more of our co-hosts and you can read that co-host’s biography to help decide if you want to try one of the restaurants he or she recommends.

Restaurant selection, dining preferences and tastes in foods are intensely personal. Ask 10 sushi fanatics where they like to go for sushi and you may get 20 different recommendations. When it comes to Italian food, there are a handful of places around the state at which I would happily dine any night.

Yelp attempts to homogenize restaurants selections by allowing the mass of public opinion to separate the wheat from the chaff. Problem is the mass of public opinion is what keeps McDonald’s in business and gets mediocre chain restaurants high ratings at Zagat.

You can read Timothy Sandoval’s article on this subject by copying this link and pasting it into your browser:

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