Without a doubt, Yelp is one of the most influential technological age tools used by today’s diners to decide where to eat. Many foodies design their eating programs around restaurants with a minimum Yelp star rating, generally 4½ or 4 stars, refusing to even consider lower rated restaurant destinations. To some extent this has caused a backlash among observers over Yelp ratings. There are the tales of restaurant owners having surrogates talk up their business with bogus positive Yelp reviews, or competitors doing the opposite with negative reviews. Then there are the real reviewers who base their star ratings on the color of the napkins, the layout of the restaurant, the quality of the silverware, or the location of the restaurant parking lot. But these types of comments likely even out over time and shouldn’t lead to significant comparative disparities.
However even assuming a basic rationality to relative Yelp restaurant star ratings, the comparative Yelp star ratings system for Chinese restaurants is totally out of whack. I first stumbled on this fact while doing an unrelated Google search and came across a link to Yelp’s listing of best Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, as determined through a formula involving the star ratings and the number of reviews. The top three Yelp rated Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles turned out to be Sea Dragon, Yang Chow and Wah’s Golden Hen, each with 4 or 4½ stars and a large number of reviews. Now I kind of like Sea Dragon as probably the best of a pack of Chinese restaurants in mid-city LA aimed at a Korean clientele. I remember occasionally patronizing Yang Chow in the 1970s when it was one of the first non-Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown, and they still have quite a following among downtown office workers who crave their slippery shrimp. And I really like the nice lady who runs Wah’s and dishes out some of that old, old fashioned Cantonese American food. I also realize that this Yelp rating is limited to Chinese restaurants with a Los Angeles zip code, so all the top Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley are excluded from this listing.
But are these the top three Chinese restaurants in the area of Los Angeles zip 900**? Absolutely not. While I often disparage the Chinese food in Chinatown when compared to that in the San Gabriel Valley, there are still at least a couple of dozen Chinese restaurants in Chinatown that I would rate above any of these. And these days there are quite a few decently authentic Chinese restaurants in other parts of Los Angeles. Even on the Westside, long known as a wasteland for Chinese food, there are real winners such as Meizhou Dongpo, Qin West, Popcorn Chicken, L Kitchen, Koala T Café, The Palace, Northern Café and the restaurant formerly known as California Wok (whose current name is subject to debate). Clearly the top three Yelp picks fall outside of the top 50 of Los Angeles zip coded Chinese restaurants.
The flaw in Yelp’s Chinese restaurant ratings was highlighted a couple of years ago, when Yahoo came out with their listing of the top Chinese restaurants in each of the 50 states in the US. Their highly scientific methodology? As they stated quite unashamedly, they took the highest Yelp rated Chinese restaurant from each state. Under this system, the best Chinese restaurant in California was not Koi Palace in Daly City, often considered to be the best Chinese restaurant in the US, nor Sea Harbour in Rosemead, the consensus best Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley, nor Chengdu Taste in Alhambra, the shining vanguard of new Sichuan food in America and generally acclaimed to be the best Sichuan style restaurant in the US. No, Yahoo’s best California Chinese restaurant as determined by Yelp ratings was The Chairman, a Bay Area food truck operation with storefront locations in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and the Los Angeles Arts District.
In the booming eastern San Gabriel Valley, which includes the City of Industry, and which is threatening to eclipse cities like San Gabriel and Alhambra as premier Chinese food destinations, who does Yelp rate as the best in Industry? Why China Fast Food, one of the few Americanized Chinese restaurants in the region, which leads the Yelp pack over dozens of good authentic Chinese restaurants in Industry, including my personal favorites Seafood Palace, Golden Valley Seafood and Shanxi Noodle House.
But the most telling example of the unreliability of Yelp Chinese restaurant ratings lies in the tale of the popular Los Angeles Chinese language restaurant website, Chihuo, which was profiled in a 2015 L.A. Weekly article. Founded only five years ago, Chihuo boasts 200,000 followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. (In contrast, Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Times food reviewer Jonathon Gold has 100,000 Twitter followers). Chihuo’s founder Amy Duan came to L.A. from China to attend graduate school. And why did she start the Chihuo website? Because as a newcomer to Los Angeles, she quickly discovered that Yelp ratings of authentic Chinese restaurants were useless.
The problem with Yelp ratings of Chinese restaurant becomes even worse when one starts to compare the absolute numerical star ratings of these top Yelp rated Los Angeles Chinese restaurants with the elite Chinese restaurants noted. In one corner, we have Sea Dragon, Yang Chow and Wah’s Golden Hen, each with ratings of 4 to 4½ Yelp stars. In the other corner we have Koi Palace, Sea Harbour, and Chengdu Taste, on everybody’s list of the very best Chinese restaurants in the United States, each with 3½ Yelp stars. What in the world is going on?
In a word, the answer is comparability. Generally speaking, the people eating at Wah’s Golden Hen are not the same people who eat at Sea Harbour, and vice versa. Yelp composite stars may appear superficially to provide an objective comparative measure by giving a numerical rating to each restaurant. But when blindly followed by diners who only eat at 4 star or better Yelp restaurants, it's truly an apples to oranges comparison that can lead to crazy results. While this is probably a basic flaw in Yelp (think comparing the ratings for a diner in a small town in Missouri which could well have more Yelp stars than a famous Manhattan restaurant), it is most extreme when applied to Chinese restaurants since there is such a wide range in the sophistication of diners eating Chinese food.
A good example of how a diner’s personal experience is a limiting factor in his or her restaurant ratings comes from one of the more puzzling episodes in the recent annals of Chinese restaurant reviews. In 2015, GQ Magazine and its respected food critic Alan Richman presented its 25 top restaurants in the United States. At #25 was Alhambra’s Shi Hai, the only Chinese restaurant to make the list. Now Shi Hai (since rebranded as World Seafood) was well known as a solid dim sum and seafood restaurant, but certainly not in the top tier of Los Angeles area Chinese restaurants. Not surprisingly, the head scratching over this elite honor was widespread. So what happened? The best explanation is that the New York-based critic Richman did not know about all of the great Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere in California. He had no idea that Shi Hai, which apparently surpassed any other Chinese restaurant he was familiar with, was only an also-ran among Chinese restaurants in the Los Angeles area. So throwing in Yelp reviewers who consider P.F. Changs to be a great Chinese restaurant, one can see how the numbers can be skewed.
But the comparability issue in Yelp star ratings is not limited to the relative sophistication of the different diners partaking in Chinese food. If Sea Harbour, Koi Palace and Chengdu Taste are among the very best Chinese restaurants in America (and they are), why do they only garner 3½ Yelp stars? For that matter most of the other highest regarded (and crowded) Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley including stalwarts such as King Hua, Lunasia, Elite, China Red and Happy Harbor, also all sit at 3½ Yelp stars. Jonathan Gold’s favorite, Shanghai #1 Seafood Village, only garners 3 Yelp stars. And the same pattern of downgrades extends to Yelp Chinese restaurant ratings in other large Chinese communities, including Vancouver (Richmond), British Columbia.
These lower ratings for such highly regarded Chinese restaurants are a tougher puzzle to solve, though a couple of possible explanatory factors come to mind. First of all, while these Chinese restaurants are indeed among the best in the United States, a large percentage of people who dine at these restaurants are originally from Asia, and often go back for visits. Clearly, the best Chinese food in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and parts of Mainland China knocks the socks off the best Chinese food we have here in Los Angeles. As a result, the Chinese food in the best of our local restaurants may well deserve a lower rating taking into account to the worldwide eating experience of these diners.
Another factor is that non-Asian diners do make their way to these better known top tier Chinese restaurants and post on Yelp. In many cases, these diners are looking for dishes like those they find at their favorite Americanized Chinese restaurant, and may be disappointed by the renditions they find at more authentic Chinese eateries. These diners may also give Yelp downgrades for non-culinary attributes such as lack of service, which is more pronounced at Chinese restaurants in places like the San Gabriel Valley. In contrast, many Chinese diners accept a lower level of service as coming with the territory at their favorite Chinese restaurants, and is a minor consideration compared to the quality of the food they are receiving.
But while this may seem to conveniently explain why Yelp ratings for authentic Chinese restaurants might tend to a lower number, there is a fly in the ointment. There are in fact a fair number of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley with 4 Yelp stars, and an even a few with 4½ stars (aside from China Fast Food). Indeed, four very well known and popular Chinese restaurants, the legendary Din Tai Fung, Newport Seafood, Savoy Kitchen, and new rising star Sichuan Impression do manage to eek out 4 Yelp stars. So it’s not that San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants primarily patronized by Chinese diners are categorically marked down. On the other hand, some of the San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants are marked up from what might be expected. There are some very pedestrian San Gabriel Valley Chinese restaurants that share 3½ star Yelp ratings with the top tier restaurants we have mentioned, including one which was recently downgraded from 4 stars, and where I personally would not be caught dead eating.
So how do those high Yelp ratings at some restaurants reconcile with the lower Yelp ratings at many top-tier Chinese restaurants? Fewer non-Asian Yelp reviewers? Newer restaurants that for the moment have captured people’s imagination? Smaller restaurants who build a more loyal following? Rounding errors or statistical quirks? None of the above?
In conclusion… “Forget it Jake. It’s Yelp’s Chinese restaurant ratings.”