Stick to the facts: How to write a restaurant review without being a jerk

Have you ever posted a restaurant review online? If you have, the chances are good you took the time to do it because you wanted the restaurant to know about your experience, and you wanted to help others have - or avoid - a similar experience. Yet based on the snarky, extreme reviews we all have had the displeasure of reading, the question had to be asked: is there a right and a wrong way to write a restaurant review? 

In short, yes. 

We recently talked with a professional secret shopper about the concept of writing reviews that provide the constructive feedback that most people and businesses really want to know if they're relying on the opinion of a stranger to find a place to eat. In short, her advice comes down to two main ideas:

  • Provide context for your review by stating your preferences and expectations
  • Stick to the facts

Here are some helpful guidelines for making sure your review does what you intend: provides meaningful, factual information to people that are using reviews to try to find a place to eat.

Frame your review around your preferences and expectations, not your assumptions about the preferences and expectations of others. 

The first thing our pro explained is that it's natural for personal bias to come into play when writing a review. This can be a problem because - spoiler alert - other people are not you. Whether you realize it or not your evaluation of an experience at a restaurant is dramatically affected by your own preferences and expectations. In other words, context is everything.

When you start your review, take a minute to explain some of the preferences and expectations you had when you came to the restaurant or when you ordered what you did. By knowing what you prefer, a reader can then understand if they have similar preferences and can actually use your review in a constructive way to help make up their own mind about where to go. 

Here's the wrong way, which leaves out the context:

“The fish here is terrible! It’s all breading! And what kind of place only puts cod and haddock on their Friday fish fry menu?! How do they stay in business?”

“Eww! This pizza is some of the worst in town. I mean, it’s all burnt around the edges, and barely has any toppings!”

“Finally! A place that knows how to prepare a real burger. More restaurants should follow their lead."

Here's the right way to include context:

I like fish fries that use lake fish, and I tend to prefer a thin, light cornmeal breading that results in a high fish-to-breading ratio. Unfortunately for me, this place uses a doughier, pancake-like batter on their fish, and only offered ocean fish on the night we went. Their fries, though, were thin and crispy, which I do prefer over steak fries that are thick and potato-y.”

We like a good hand-tossed pizza crust that holds up to the weight of toppings - because we like a lot of toppings. This place turned out to be a different style of pizza. The menu said it was “Neapolitan". The toppings were more sparse, and the crust was thinner than we like.”

I like thick, pub-style burgers that have a nice sear on the outside and are cooked to medium on the inside. This place did it right!"

The same goes for reviews of service and environment. How you feel about your server or the host can be completely dependent on your own personal preferences. So if you want to comment on the service, consider providing context for those comments, too.

The wrong way:

“Our server was basically the worst server ever. We should have put in a complaint with the manager, because he ruined our experience.”

“The music was way too loud!"

The right way:

We usually like it when our server just kinda does their main job: get our order taken accurately and promptly, keep our drinks full, but don’t be too chatty. Our server on this night was more on the talkative side, asking us all kinds of questions about what we were up to that weekend, etc. He was nice, but wasn’t picking up on our signals that we didn’t really want to engage.”

“We really just wanted to have a nice, quiet conversation, but the music was too loud for us to hear each other without feeling like we were yelling."

Stick to the facts.

Our secret shopping pro told us that she was forbidden from using hyperbole and opinion-based judgments in her reviews. The point is that saying something is “the dirtiest” isn’t credible unless the reviewer knows that to be true, while saying, “There were crumbs on, under and around our table when we sat down” gives both the business and another potential customer a factual representation of your experience.

Hyperbole, conjecture, and broad, baseless opinions have little value to a reader. You’re doing it wrong if you include things like this in your restaurant review - especially without context - even if your comments are positive:

“This place has to have the laziest staff on the planet.”

“They must get their produce from the trunk of a car somewhere on the corner of 3rd and Houston.”

“The best pizza in the Midwest!"


Instead, you can write a review that actually helps both the restaurant and the people reading it if you stick to the facts about your experience. The first rule of providing context can help here, too. 

“Four different servers were on their phones while we waited for someone to visit our table and take a drink order. I think we waited 15 minutes even though we were one of two tables seated at the time.”

“The greens in our salads were wet, limp and covered with black splotches.”

“Among the five or six pizza places I’ve been to in town, this is my favorite because I like their style of deep dish pizza that’s loaded with chunky sauce and lots of cheese.”

“I could eat the duck confit dish with just a fork. It was that tender. And the maple jalapeño sauce served with it was sweet and hot, which I personally love."

Bonus Tip: Give the restaurant a chance to make things right while you’re still at the restaurant.

In our experience, restaurant owners and managers want you to have a positive experience when you visit their establishment. It's true! They’re trying to hire good people, serve quality food, and get things right. They may even train their staff on the elements of (extreme) customer expectations. There can be exceptions, but we’re pretty sure that the majority of establishments fall into the category of wanting to give people a good experience. 

So, if you’re not having a great experience at a restaurant, it’s OK to tell someone! Even the best restaurants and teams will miss their mark here and there, and while that doesn’t diminish the feeling of disappointment you may have if your meal or service doesn't meet your expectations, it also means you don’t have to leave feeling quietly angry or vindictive. Instead, tell someone how things are going - as they’re happening. 

Did your burger come without an ingredient you asked for? Ask for it! Did the salad come with an ingredient you asked to have left off? Tell your server! No one wants to disrupt the meal for an entire table of four because their steak came out far undercooked, and sometimes the path to resolution isn’t clean and neat. But still, tell someone what’s going on, tell them how they can make it right, or ask for their help in what can be done to make it right. And - and this is key - ask nicely. Politely. This isn’t a secret trick. It’s just The Golden Rule. 

The bottom line: When you have to write a review, do it with class.

If your attempt to get an issue resolved doesn’t go well and you feel like writing a review is the way to help others avoid a similar experience, then hey, go home and write that review! Just remember to provide context and stick to the facts, and you’ll likely write a review that will do what you hoped it would: help the restaurant know what's working and what isn't, and help other people find a restaurant that meets their own expectations.

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