But before we get there, for us one of the great joys of traveling is to experience the food on offer in the location. Seeking out eateries featuring great, local ingredients, good ambience and dishes for which the location is known or even famous for, is what many visitors strive to do. Reading TripAdvisor restaurant reviews is certainly one way to identify great, local eateries.
And observing local people enjoying themselves at their favorite restaurants is all part of the fun and one of the ways you learn about the soul of the destination. Sometimes these local restaurants might be inexpensive and others may be the opposite but with a quality to match.
But let’s be honest here. In many “touristy” towns and cities there are designated tourist zones or strips. Here you will find bars, restaurants and cafes catering primarily to tourists and not to the locals. For sure, there are some great places to eat within these zones and you may find many locals frequenting these establishments as well. But are these truly the establishments the locals go to for “real food” in their city?
We are suggesting if you are serious about finding great local cuisine in a city or country you are not familiar with, you shouldn’t just be relying on TripAdvisor restaurant reviews, black box algorithms and ratings to identify them.
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3 Problems with TripAdvisor Restaurant Reviews: Demographics
As anyone over the age of 40 can attest, social media, smart phones and TripAdvisor did not exist in our young, adult lives.
For many of us oldies, “putting yourself out there” with social media is still an uncomfortable and foreign experience. Most of my friends and family around my age don’t use social media at all, save for a few who have a Facebook page. Nor are those “oldies” the usual person to write a TripAdvisor review.
Why is this important and what has it to do with finding good local restaurants?
I had never really thought about this until my mother very recently mentioned how uncomfortable she was now eating at her (previously) favorite restaurant. Why? Because the music was now just too loud for her, whereas I didn’t find the music to be that loud at all. Different strokes for different folks. Demographics – pure and simple.
Also on demographics, some people have a higher disposable income and enjoy visiting a more expensive restaurant and are happy to pay for the ambience and quality of the food rather than looking at the price (because they can afford to). But many of those people are not the type of people writing Trip Advisor reviews.
So, a big issue with TripAdvisor is the average person to write a TripAdvisor review will be well under the age of 40 (I would say less than 30 actually). Because they have less disposable income they will more likely have a different definition of “value” as opposed to someone who is say 50.
The under 40 age group is over represented when it comes to writing TripAdvisor restaurant reviews.
As an example, there is a restaurant in Melbourne that has been rated the best in Australia at least 20 times in the last 40 years. That’s quite a record but despite this brilliant track record it does not appear on the front page of TripAdvisor. But what does appear are a number of restaurants owned by “celebrity chefs” as well as a few food chains. Really? Ok there are also a lot of good restaurants in that list as well.
The bottom line is the use of social media (and TripAdvisor) is really dominated by younger folks. If you are older, you need to bear that in mind.
3 Problems with TripAdvisor Restaurant Reviews: Fake TripAdvisor Reviews
There are more and more stories appearing in the media of restaurants and hotels taking legal action over fake TripAdvisor reviews. Quite frankly, I’m not surprised. There are serious issues around “fake TripAdvisor reviews”. To that list you can also add overly critical or overly optimistic reviews and paid reviews.
I know TripAdvisor warns about fake reviews but it is very easy for a dishonest competitor to game the system and write a fake, overly critical review. Or the opposite for “friends” of a restaurant to write an overly generous TripAdvisor restaurant review that is not deserved. And to me, this is TripAdvisor’s (and social media’s) biggest flaw. There is no accountability!
And while I think the majority of TripAdvisor reviews are legitimate, there is no way TripAdvisor can guarantee the honesty of a review. Compare this to a professional, food writer for a newspaper (and who the newspaper pays). We know their name, they’re not hiding behind some alias, we know who they write for and you know their reputation.
And here is another thing. Did you know there are way more google searches for “worst TripAdvisor reviews” than “best TripAdvisor reviews”? In fact, it is not even close but by a factor of 2! Worse still, 4 times more people search for “funny TripAdvisor reviews”.
Why are people searching for the worst TripAdvisor reviews and funny TripAdvisor reviews rather than the best TripAdvisor reviews? Is it because they want some entertainment at the expense of someone else? Who knows but it isn’t a good look for TripAdvisor, that’s for sure.
3 Problems with TripAdvisor Restaurant Reviews: Locals Don’t Write Reviews
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have visited famous tourist attractions in a city only to find many of the locals have never got around to visiting it. Yes, that’s right. Most locals never get around to visit the attractions their city is famous for. Think of the London Eye, Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty. Why is that?
Well we all know the attraction is there but we take it for granted because we live there and we “know we will get to it one day but there is no hurry because I can go there any time”. Whereas the visitor to a city may not return so they visit many of the notable attractions so they can tick it off their bucket lists and fair enough too.
This same phenomenon also applies to great restaurants. Fascinating, don’t you think? And here is another phenomenon. Locals don’t write, en masse, about their experiences via TripAdvisor restaurant review. Locals are totally under-represented relative to visitors to the same city, when the time comes to write a TripAdvisor review. Go check it out for yourself. Most TripAdvisor restaurant reviews are written by tourists. We certainly don’t use Trip Advisor to find a restaurant at home.
And ok, let me get this off my chest. When writing a TripAdvisor restaurant review many visiting tourists suddenly become experts in the local cuisine. With headlines like “best paella ever”, “best seafood in Valencia”. Really?
Someone who has been in a city for 5 or less days suddenly becomes an expert on all things Paella and seafood?
The bottom line here is TripAdvisor ratings are usually from tourists, not locals or trained restaurant reviewers, and it is the subjective reviews of those visitors taking the time to write a review. The vast majority of people eating there are not writing a review. Bear that in mind if you are looking for a restaurant where the real locals spend their money.
Tips for Using Trip Advisor to Find a Restuarant
- Know what you are looking for, do you want cheap eats or a fine dining experience. If so try to filter to those experiences rather than looking at the list in numerical order.
- Look at the overall ratings. Are there just a few really negative reviews that seem totally out of step with the rest of the reviews. (or overly positive compared to the others)
- Look and see where the reviewers are from- are they tourists or locals.
- Look elsewhere for recommendations about the restaurant and then make your decision.
- Try alternatives to Trip Advisor.
If You Want a Real Local Restaurant Experience Talk to the Locals
Yes, I know TripAdvisor is free but there is an expression “you get what you pay for”, so in some cases “free” might not be the best option.
If you want to find great restaurants where the locals eat be they cheap or expensive, you need to get out of the tourist zones, get off your phones and talk to the locals. Here are a few suggestions:
- Go to the local markets and shopping areas. Market vendors and small foodie shopkeepers have one thing in common right around the world. They love to show off their city and will happily give you reliable recommendations. If you can speak the language and like the look of the stall, ask them for some restaurant recommendations. They will gladly answer your question. Not only that but you will enjoy the whole experience of talking with people from different cultures.
- Ask for recommendations from your hotel or your AirBnB host. We do use AirBnB quite often and we have always found restaurant recommendations from the host to be 100% reliable. Again, people are proud of their cities and it is a great way to uncover some hidden, restaurant gems. Not the same old, same old where they send tourists. If you are in a hotel in a tourist zone, ask for recommendations outside of the tourist zone. Ask them what their favorite restaurant is.
- Use local publications. Yes, sometimes these cost money but they are independent. And, the author(s) reputation is at stake, so they are usually accurate regarding quality and price. You can often find copies of local dining guides in cafes or your accommodation.
The locals use these 3 methods themselves to find new restaurants to visit. And, no doubt you do as well in your home city. So why is it that we stop using these proven methods when we visit a city we are unfamiliar with?
Now it is over to you. I am certainly not expecting everyone to agree with what I have said here. How do you find great, local restaurants? What is your experience with TripAdvisor?