I've been in the restaurant business for about 18 months now. One of the great delights of the last year and a half has been the support and encouragement that we've received from customers and the Internet community. One of the great disappointments has been the absolute venom and bile that the same community has unleashed.
I think most independent restaurant owners, especially those who are also cooks, want to hear from their diners. We need to understand what people are enjoying and what is missing the mark. I believe that educated, involved eaters make better customers. They will understand the food and our attempts, even when we don't achieve our goal.
If I ever reach the level of omnipotence that my staff is sure I'm pursuing, I'll institute the following rules for online reviewers:
If you don't like something, okay. I'll never, ever, argue with a customer who simply doesn't like something that I've served. But saying, "I didn't care for the shrimp" is much different than: "The shrimp were bad." Disliking something does not make it, or its creator, evil, so don't confuse opinion with fact. Most owner-operated restaurants are labors of love. Of course we're prone to being defensive. The best of us will put our defensiveness aside and try to suss out the meaningful content of your criticism, but it is inevitable that we'll defend our favored child. Saying things like, "Oh, honey, you're never going to last a year," to the owner of a newly opened restaurant is like telling a newborn's parent that the child is never going to amount to much. Not every thought needs to be spoken.
Don't be unnecessarily mean, condescending or snarky. It isn't cute when you are affecting my livelihood. I understand that the anonymity of the Internet can be a siren-like call to free expression. We, as owners, however, don't enjoy the same privilege. You all know who we are, and in many cases, where we live. You certainly know where we work. But keep in mind that you may not be as anonymous as you'd like to believe, especially in small, high-touch restaurants. We will likely see you around town.
Also, remember that even on food TV shows like Chopped, Top Chef, etc., the judges aren't anonymous and are talking face-to-face with the cooks.
Don't write anything about my restaurant that you wouldn't tell me to my face, or at least sign your name to. Many in the online community bemoan the lack of quality independent eateries in their area. Snarky, unfounded comments will only drive business away.
Give us something we can fix — we'll probably fix it.
Online reviews can be a great way of giving a restaurant direction for improvement. "Service was slow," "Soup was salty," "Meat was tough" are valid, actionable comments. "Worst meal of my life" really doesn't give me much to go on, especially when the meal you're complaining about was 16 months ago. Maybe it was the company.
A continuing amazement is people who complain about our entire concept. They knew what we were when they walked in, or learned shortly thereafter, yet still complain because we aren't the burger-taco-sandwich-pizza joint that they really wanted us to be. We'd all be happier if you walked in, looked around, read the menu and said, "We're going elsewhere." Would you go to McDonald's and complain because they don't have foie gras?
This isn't rocket science. Dining out is supposed to be fun. Part of the fun is talking about the meal afterward and critiquing. I get that. And I really do appreciate constructive criticism. When I finally achieve omnipotence, I'll make sure that every plate is perfect, every time. Until then, all I can do is listen and try to improve.