Would you risk jail for a bad restaurant review?

Food politics
Should restaurants take legal action against reviewers?

There’s a cautionary tale here, or a call to arms, depending on which way you look at it.

Mrs Liu went to a restaurant in Taipei, found the food ‘too salty’, saw a couple of cockroaches in the kitchen,  wrote about his experiences and ended up being sued for libel by an outraged restaurant owner. She received an incredibly harsh thirty-day jail sentence, two years probation, a £4,300 fine and a seriously bruised ego.

Whilst it’s certainly not unusual for restaurateurs to take their figurative bats home and try to sue reviewers, a jail sentence would seem to be a tad excessive for a dodgy review.

Why such an over the top reaction?

It’s fairly clear why restaurant owners are protective of their businesses.  Their restaurant is their livelihood, and that livelihood relies almost entirely on reputation.  Good food is a pre-requisite, but people knowing about that food is far more important.  There aren’t many businesses that depend so heavily on word of mouth or public perception for success, or where that success can be dashed so decisively when the tide turns the wrong way.

Running a restaurant is almost all about reputation, and it takes a lot of hard work to build that reputation, and even more to support it.  That’s why restaurant owners can get defensive sometimes, and, really, that’s fair enough.

I don’t blame Mrs Liu’s nemesis from feeling affronted in the face of a bad review.

I probably would have flipped.

This raises an interesting question about fairness in restaurant reviews – people have an absolute right to express their opinion, as long as it’s factually correct and given in good faith, but restaurateurs have an equally absolute right to defend themselves in the face of malice or inaccuracy.

If I write a load of old rubbish about a restaurant on here – if I essentially make it all up – I’d expect to be challenged, and I’d expect to be asked to either discuss it with the restaurant concerned, correct any factual inaccuracies or withdraw the post.  To be clear, I’d never get myself into a position where I had to do this in the first place, and if I did, I’d hardly be the sort of person who’d listen to protests and act on them anyway.

So what can a restaurateur do?  Sometimes, more forceful action can be the only recourse.

But it’s a risky business.

It’s difficult to distinguish between real malice and fair opinion, and one blogger’s throwaway comment about a dish being ‘too salty’ or not to their liking could easily be seen as a full frontal assault on a restaurant’s credibility by its owner.

Proving defamation is difficult in these circumstances, because there’s rarely very clear malice or intent, just opinion that might be negative, might or might not be fair.  But legal action does happen, and verdicts seem to swing in both directions.

It’s questionable whether taking a reviewer to court is worth doing in any case.  It’s often said that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but I’ve never really believed that to be true.

Do petty-minded spats with reviewers enhance or degrade reputation?  Have a look at this tale of a restaurant review gone bad and decide if you want to eat in the restaurant in question.

Probably not.

Heavy-handed legal action can also upset the balance between the critic and the restaurant.  Let’s be plain about this – restaurants need critics…they need people to tell other people that they’re good.

How many times have you walked past a restaurant and seen reviews clipped from newspapers proudly on display in the window?  They’re like marketing gold, enough to tip a casual passer-by into a customer, into profit.

Word of mouth counts for a lot, but it counts for even more when somebody else helps it along and starts a bit of a buzz.

Restaurants know and understand this, and they’re quick to capitalise on it.  Take this extract from an email I received this week from a PR person working for a Leeds restaurant:

I am very aware of how powerful and important food blogs are in recommendations within Leeds and the following you have.

This may oversell the direct power of this blog, and I’m not suggesting for a second that this blog is overly influential, but people do regularly arrive here after Googling for specific restaurants.  It shows how seriously new media is starting to be taken in the business, and rightly so.  We bloggers may not have the personal influence of a Jay Rayner or an AA Gill, but we are legion, and sometimes we surprise ourselves over how successful our amateur attempts at search engine optimisation are…

But is it just good reviews that restaurants need?

No, absolutely not.

They need bad ones too, because bad ones shine a light on their weaknesses.  Have you experienced a time when you’re so close to something, so immersed in it, that you can’t see past it, can’t see how it really is, can’t see its faults?  Often it takes somebody else to come along and say something that causes you to stand back and look at things through new eyes, shedding the blinkers and seeing afresh.

Maybe a bad review could do that, give a restaurant a new lens, a new perspective.

On the grounds that all feedback is good feedback, perhaps restaurants can learn from every review, and I’m certain many do.  When I write about a restaurant, I’m only transcribing the sort of conversation I have on the way home, or at work the next day, except perhaps a little more politely and with more amplification.

It’s hard, but shouldn’t restaurants just take negative reviews written in good faith on their merits and look at why the reviewer felt that way in the first place, and get those problems fixed?

The issue here is that that’s an idealised view.  In reality, restaurant owners are people who act emotionally, and they still have the nuclear option of legal action tucked up their sleeves.

This might not worry the big newspaper critics, who often welcome a little notoriety anyway, safe in the knowledge that they’re backed by international corporations with huge legal departments, but it has the potential to scare the living daylights out of the more amateur end of the market.  It’s always there, always present, and it causes me to test everything I write against a simple criteria – is it fair, is it true, is it kind, is it going to harm?  Three positives and a negative and I hit Publish and try to sleep easy.

It’s right that bloggers and other critics should feel the weight of their responsibility, because a little discomfort helps to keep things balanced and leads to a better review.

Over reacting and taking legal action over restaurant reviews helps no-one, and I’d suggest that most problems between critics and restaurants should be resolved in a more sensible and open way, because ultimately, the restaurant will benefit from that approach.  A harsh critic can turn champion.

In many senses, I’m lucky because there’s a huge concentration of great places to eat in Yorkshire, and it’s rare to find somewhere without any merit at all.

Even the worst meal out in living memory started with a fantastic plate of pakora.

Can you guess where it was?