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Reviewing the Reviewer: Why Public Opinion Doesn't Count

01/09/2014 12:17 BST | Updated 30/10/2014 09:59 GMT

"And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!"

"Have you used it much?" I enquired.

"It has never been spread out, yet," said Mein Herr. "The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well."

Lewis Carroll, Sylvie & Bruno Concluded

As a restaurateur one is subject to reviews. It was bad enough in the days when one only had to fear the crapulous pundits of print casting their judgement after a long lunch. Today our scourges are the customers who think they can make or ruin us by posting their troublesome pennyworths online.

I've quoted from Carroll's subversive novel because it highlights the first problem with the public-as-reviewer universe. It's a philosophical fallacycalled mistaking the map for the territory.

The fallacy in this case is to assume that because lots of people review a place online, those reviews represent the truth about that place. But it doesn't make a place better because lots of people, who we don't know, have been there and written about it. A map, however big, is still a map.

The second problem is the value of general 'opinion'. Because they are able to eat in a restaurant doesn't make what someone writes interesting or useful. A review written by someone you don't know, with little experience or expertise in reviewing restaurants, is as useful as asking a man in the street what he thinks about the economy. Faintly diverting perhaps but hardly an opinion on which you'd base fiscal policy.

In our business, we weakly console ourselves against the torture of dripping online discontent with feeble aphorisms like 'one man's poison is another man's cure' or 'you can't please all of the people all of the time'. What we know is that most of the time, our success is based on repeat custom, word of mouth and personal recommendations between people who know each other. And even then, opinion still varies.

Restaurateurs and chefs both fear and hope to be reviewed. But at least in the hands of a professional reviewer, however coruscating or laudatory, the hand of experience is at work. And the chances are that they can write well, so reading the review might also be a pleasing experience.

Philip's most recent pop-up restaurant called PipsDish was in London's Covent Garden. It is now closed.