By Brian Min

Feature photo by Jenny Downing

After a meal at a classy French bistro, a customer orders coffee only to have the server return without cream or sugar in tow. The customer is infuriated by the lapse in service and what could only be a monumental bistro faux pas. Surely such a blatant oversight would never pass in Paris, let alone Lincoln Park. But for that matter, who’s truly at fault in this scenario?

As the Internet becomes the go-to social stomping ground, networking sites like Foursquare, Twitter, and Tumblr are developing into the communicative norm providing the masses with the tools and resources to spawn a new generation of rogue food critics. Unfortunately, this also means an overabundance of baseless subjectivity capable of pushing a restaurant’s success or digging it an early grave.

Yelp is particularly guilty of this practice. Visit the site and you’ll notice the vast majority of these purported critics have limited to no experience regarding the food industry or an extensive knowledge of food in general. They’ve most likely never had to serve a rude customer (to whom the server is dependent on for a tip), worked behind the line during a weekend dinner rush, ever made the al pastor from the taqueria they’re so quick to judge, or personally dealt with the litany of codes, regulations, and other intangibles necessary to operate a business in Chicago, successful or otherwise. With that said, reading through negative Yelp reviews is mostly frustrating because people seem more than willing to sacrifice common sense for the sake of a witty one-paragraph diatribe and possible “Cool” or “Funny” points from their peers.

For example, Lorrie M. was dissatisfied with her experience at Alinea because she thought it was BYOB and unhappy that the wine she brought along wasn’t welcomed by the staff with open arms. Strange that a three-star Michelin restaurant with an award-winning sommelier and wine program may be offended that you brought your own bottle to dinner. Jose C. found the food at Cho Sun Ok to be “super duper salty” and was displeased that the server only filled his water glass halfway, apparently leaving him in an agonizing and perpetually dehydrated state, and that the servers intentionally chose to “hover” over him while cutting up his meat causing further “fear” and discomfort. Then again, Jose doesn’t seem to realize Korean food is based primarily on dishes that are pickled/brined/prepared in a salt solution, and that it’s incredibly disconcerting for someone to be hyper-critical of a cuisine and culture they obviously know nothing about. And let’s not forget Jeff G. who absolutely hates Supermercado Chapala in Rogers Park because they toss their trash out at inappropriate hours (e.g. 9:00PM) and he can’t stand the noise the garbage truck makes early in the morning. Welcome to the city, Jeff. Perhaps next time you should scout out your prospective living arrangements more thoroughly and contact your ward’s alderman with a more appropriate hour to pick up your trash.

[Note: Lorrie M. and Jeff G. are, by Yelp standards, considered “Elite” members. Jeff G. also admits to never having stepped foot in Supermercado Chapala despite happily denigrating it. So what exactly are the standards for a Yelp “Elite” membership any way?]

Restaurants certainly don’t get a free pass in the matter. The top priority of any respectable establishment should be to provide a high-quality dining experience every day for every customer, which is what makes the industry so demanding. If an establishment cannot set consistently high standards for itself, then shame on them.

But at what point does the diner assume responsibility? A recent article in the New York Times discusses the notion that perhaps “the customer isn’t always right,” and how restaurants are somehow on the defensive against a largely uneducated and fickle crowd. Why is it that businesses led by experienced food professionals are expected to constantly compromise their standards for the sake of the customers? No vegetarian options? Tough luck. Well-done steak? Bennigan’s would be happy to oblige your request. Take-out espresso? There’s a Starbucks everywhere but here. Inevitably, the more places you try, the easier it becomes to discern personal preference. There are more than enough options in Chicago to fulfill your specific needs. Stop trying to enforce your demands everywhere you go.

With regard to the opening coffee scenario, whether the bistro chooses to serve their coffee black or if it was actually a case of lackluster service is beside the point. Ultimately, the customer never bothered to ask. It hearkens back to that age-old adage: There are no stupid questions. That simple gesture would’ve solved the coffee issue and life would go on, with or without cream and sugar. Instead, the customer chose to let their ego get in the way, which speaks volumes concerning that individual’s character rather than the restaurant’s service.

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