In Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s imagining, Yelp reviewers in South Park discreetly reveal their status as amateur “food critics” in a whisper to a restaurant host, who then whisks them off to a table of their choosing, before turning up the lights a bit, per their request. In reality, in mid-November, two “Elite Yelpers,” a status given to a select group who received nominations for their reviews, sat outside of a new restaurant in Koreatown, Manhattan called Her Name Is Han. The man and woman practiced in law and in finance, respectively, when they weren’t reviewing restaurants. They were already deep in conversation by the time my photographer and I arrived. A third Elite, this one in advertising, was on his way to join us.
We were ushered a little ways into the restaurant, a long rectangular space that shifts to the left at its midsection before continuing toward the back, like a Tetris piece made of exposed brick, spider-like chandeliers and shelves lined with bottles of lychee and grapefruit juice for cocktails. Our table was next to the kitchen station, where servers in white aprons skirted in blue and leather straps hovered.
The restaurant was packed, but the host had reshuffled some of the tables to accommodate us after I noted that the reservation included three prolific Yelpers. It was straight from the script, and before we had all hung our jackets on the back of the chairs, someone already mentioned the South Park episode that had aired one month prior.
The three Elite Yelpers had become prolific reviewers, logging in a collective 1,887 reviews, over 3,600 friends and 23 years of Elite status for reasons divorced from mock fame or importance.
“I watched it yesterday, just to see what it’s all about,” said the banker. And, noting that the reservation was made easier by their statuses, added, “I was wondering if it works; I guess it does.”
“I’ve never tried it. Have you?” the banker asked the lawyer. “No, I don’t do that. I know what it’s like when someone wants to spit in your food,” he responded. “No one ever knows I’m on Yelp.” The banker nodded just as the third Yelper, an advertiser, got to the table.
“Sorry, I’m never the one that’s late.”
The three of them, all past the age of 30, are part of the old guard of Yelp, which was founded in 2004. They joined the community before there was any clout inherent in being a “Yelper,” and when using the term “Yelp effect” would have raised eyebrows. (Currently, Yelp has a total of 90 million reviews; in the third quarter of 2015, it received a monthly average of 168 million unique visitors.)
Yelp — well, the idea behind it — has been hotly discussed recently. This August, legislators in Washington proposed a “modern method” for providing feedback on governmental services. The “sharing economy,” on which Airbnb, Spinlister and other short-lived startups depend, finds its roots in the legitimacy and trust of crowdsourced reviews, popularized in dining by Yelp and in consumer goods by Amazon. More than ever, these reviews carry serious weight.
The sample of these three was a little skewed; none of them carried the self-importance of a millennial with a smartphone, or the firm belief in the relevancy held by food bloggers turned self-entitled “critics.” The three Elite Yelpers had become prolific reviewers, logging in a collective 1,887 reviews, over 3,600 friends, and 23 years of Elite status, for reasons divorced from mock fame or importance.
For the lawyer, Yelp acted as a travelogue and a reason to meet new people, pushing him to restaurants he’d never go to. “It’s easy to get locked into your social circle,” he said, laughing. “I’m the type of guy who would hang out with a body on the floor.” For the banker, Yelp happened because she was poor and 20 and a recent transplant to New York, in need of help to experience the city cheaply. As time went on, and her job focused on numbers, she continued for the creative outlet. This view was shared by the advertiser, who had been friends with an early Yelp employee. The friend asked him to join, along with their entire friend group. Six years later, the advertiser was the only one still leaving reviews. He arrived having already drafted a first line of his possible review — something to do with the name “Her Name Is Han” bringing to mind a transgender Star Wars spinoff — before abandoning the thought with a laugh.
For all their various reasons for joining, all three stayed with Yelp because they enjoy providing advice and taking it from others, although they are wary of their potential impact. First and foremost, it’s a social network, but with its roots in transactional advice, rather than sharing 140-character musings or vacation selfies. “If you talk about power and using it right, then I want to make my neighborhood better. It makes my life better,” said the lawyer about giving kind reviews to the only sushi spot in his neighborhood. “I won’t have to drive over to Astoria [for sushi].” Surprisingly, none of the others had set processes for rating restaurants besides rewarding nice service, giving restaurants multiple chances if necessary and never taking joy in a bad review.
The lawyer went to a BBQ place in which the woman behind the counter texted for ten minutes without noticing him until he left; he rated it 2 stars.
The service at Her Name Is Han was outstanding — likely due in part (not entirely) to the most controversial aspect of Yelp, the “Yelp effect.” A 2012 study by Berkeley economists found that just a half-star increase on Yelp, from 3.5 to 4 stars, resulted in a 19 percent increase in the chance a restaurant would “sell out” during peak hours. And for new restaurants, such as Her Name Is Han, a detrimental review carries more relative weight, making them more vulnerable to each reviewer’s score. Complimentary dishes arrived at the table both to show the range of the restaurant and to ensure top reviews. The lawyer would later write that it was the complimentary bottle of sweet potato soju that inflated his review from 4 to 5 stars — a bottle that likely arrived because of his status.
When the waiter returned to take our order, no one had even looked at their menu. As at their Elite Yelp events, they were busy socializing. Throughout the meal it became more and more apparent that food was just the easy and obvious common thread between them. There was no pretension looking over the menu. In retrospect, there couldn’t be; when the small plates of Korean appetizers arrived, it was the banker who had to tell everyone to dig in — that they weren’t suppose to be saved for the main course. The advertiser was more of a pizza fan. The lawyer described his restaurant adventures as “simple.”
But this isn’t to say democratized reviews don’t carry legitimacy. A review by FiveThirtyEight found that Yelp stars matched up closely with Michelin stars, the most prestigious rating system for restaurants. And, as the lawyer told me, sometimes it’s about following someone with similar tastes to yours, rather than looking for the most stars. It’s just a matter of using Yelp to find the “right” people.
Over beef bone noodle soup and spicy chicken jungol, the group admitted that the “wrong” Yelpers exist, those caricatured in South Park. The group laughed about Yelpers that get upset over the slightest infractions, losing the spirit of exploration in exchange for the wielding of power. They said the “good” Yelpers warn against only the worst, like food poisoning. (The lawyer once went to a BBQ place in which the woman behind the counter texted for ten minutes without noticing him until he left; he rated it 2 stars). The good Yelpers also find each other and maintain a close-knit community. The group of three spoke in lingo, like “UYE” meaning “unofficial Yelp event,” in which Elite Yelpers come together for a Tough Mudder or similar events. The bad Yelpers attend Elite events for the purpose of free food — a misstep that resulted in an Elite Yelper-wide email that was leaked in 2011, in which Yelp scolded them for an “Animal Planet feeding frenzy.” It’s striking that for these early adopters and dedicated users, Yelp is as much about adventure as it is about food.
In South Park, at Whistlin’ Willy’s, the owner, Bill, dressed as the restaurant’s mascot, walks up to a patron who just threatened him with a poor Yelp review and shouts, “You’re not a food critic, Dennis! You’re a fucking mechanic!” The lawyer, banker and advertiser need no such reproach. They’re not precious about their online legacy. As of the writing of this article, only one of the three had reviewed Her Name Is Han, and his review was wandering, covering what he thought was important and never taking itself seriously. These reviewers aren’t writing for notoriety.
“Well this might sound cheesy,” said the advertiser as plates were cleared. “But I write reviews for the people at this table. The thirty- or forty-somethings that want to make the most of their city.”