When Food Reviews Toe the Line Between Being Critical and Callous

posting negative food reviews online

(SPOT.ph) We all have opinions. This is especially true when it comes to food, it being so deeply personal a subject that we come across every day. With social media being the (arguably) democratic platform that it is, you come across all sorts of thoughts that can shape decisions of those who read them. These can be positive, praising a certain restaurant degustation or small eatery’s barbecue. But these can also be negative—like the recent Instagram post of online personality Masarap Ba? ranting about food they enjoyed at a wedding and calling it “hospital levels,” among other things.

Also read: Should You Complain About Restaurants on Social Media?

Dive into the world of online food reviews—and what to keep in mind when giving them:

Bad Wedding Food

Said to be published with permission from the couple, the post ranted about the food Masarap Ba had recently tried at a wedding, courtesy of caterer Town's Delight Catering—which has been around for over 45 years and calls themselves the "No. 1 Caterer in the South." "Ang haba ng pangalan diba, pero sweet and sour pork talaga talaga siya na tooooo sweeeet" is how Masarap Ba describes their Asian Style Twice Cooked Pork in Majestic Popper Sauce. The account goes on to call their tempura "lasang hangin," the buttered veggies "malungkot," and the Pesto Pasta "walang kalasa-lasa." Perhaps the only saving grace(s) of the spread were the Chicken Cordon Bleu (described as the only one "[na] may lasa") and the Petite Cakes. Masarap Ba adds, "Kung ano 'yong tears of joy ko sa newlyweds, 'yon naman ang tears of sorrow ko sa food."

masarap ba
PHOTO BY Screenshot/@masarapba on Instagram

Masarap Ba’s sentiment is, on one hand, an understandable one. Weddings are a big deal around here. And many would argue that food is the main draw in these lavish ceremonies for a lot of folks (lurve and commitment who?)—so it’s fair to expect that part of the package to be good, and be disappointed when it’s not.

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Comments on the post have likewise turned out to be mixed, but some have agred or come to the account's defense. Part of Masarap Ba’s very appeal, after all, is their supposed ruthless "honesty", and calling-spade-a-spade when food doesn’t turn out to be good, at least by their standards. It was, at least around the time they debuted, a refreshing change from the often-all positive nature of other local food-review mediums (major publications, blogs, and the like). After all, as a paying customer, you’d want to avoid spending for overly hyped things that don’t live up to their promise. Add to that the way the account would feature under-the-radar brands or finds that deserved attention—and otherwise might have the means or connections to bigger publications to make themselves known.

masarap ba wedding post comments pro
PHOTO BY Screenshot/@masarapba on Instagram

Another possible draw to Masarap Ba's popularity likely has to do with the communal nature of Filipino society. With that comes the tendency to keep things agreeable at face value—yet talk badly behind people’s backs. The anonymous nature of Masarap Ba (and other similar accounts) gives people a relatively safe avenue to express their negative sentiments, sans much of the negative feedback that could follow if they were to air their criticism directly. And let’s face it: negative reviews are kind of, tbh, snarky as it is, entertaining to read.

Others, however, have pointed out the "harshness" on Masarap Ba's part. This, in part, has to do with the fact that the food was a complementary part of a wedding they attended—where they're an invited guest, not the food's funder. In a way, this is addressed by their initial disclaimer of having gotten the couple's thumbs-up to post, but some argue it's nevertheless unnecessary. There's also the general sentiment about Masarap Ba's "honesty"—which can cross over to bullying territory—and its impact on local businesses.

masarap ba wedding post comments disagree
PHOTO BY Screenshot/@masarapba on Instagram

Does entertaining or "honest" always equal truthful—and/or ethical? What are the implications of having these reviews up, especially to the businesses involved?

Do Food Reviews Still Matter? 

Why are reviews even done, anyway—and what differentiates them from being self-serving word vomit essentially just conveying your interest?


In terms of pragmatics, they’re important for promoting restaurants or businesses (which, for practicality’s sake, we’re lumping into one in this section) and thus attracting customers to try these spots or stores out. Say you're heading out for your dad's birthday lunch or feel like treating yourself to Japanese for dinner. Sure you could decide where to go based on proximity—or, you could spend a couple extra minutes reading reviews on Google, Facebook, Instagram, even TikTok to see which place(s) are bound to give you the best bang for your buck.

Of course, there’s a bit of a double-edged factor here; a good review is bound to attract people in, but a bad review can absolutely do the opposite.

Who (Supposedly) Gets to Review Food? Who (Supposedly) Doesn’t?

The content of reviews matters as much as the identities of the people giving them. Traditionally these would be dished out (pun unintended) by experts in the field—figures considered trustworthy and credible for having the experience and knowledge required to make informed opinions. Taken to the extreme though, you get elitism—which, considering the very personal nature of food as a whole, ain’t cool. No one gets to gatekeep having the right to make their voices heard.


Enter social media, which has democratized the food-review sphere. Pretty much anyone with a mobile phone and Internet connection (which is almost anyone in urban parts of the world now) can be critics in their own way, as it takes just a couple of taps to make an account and post your own thoughts to the public. Ergo: that killer pizza you had the other day that blew you away for its perfectly chewy crust? Post about it online and you instantly recommend it to your circle. On the other hand, that 7,000-peso tasting menu you tried with disappointingly chewy steak? On your stories and/or feed you have the avenue to rant away, and maybe gain some semblance of justice.

typing on phone
Everyone and anyone can be critics to some degree, thanks to social media.
PHOTO BY Unsplash/freestocks

This promotes a sense of empowerment for the people; people are all entitled to their own opinions, and it can feel more genuine hearing what friends or those similar to you in some form—e.g. fellow normies you can identify with and/or relate to—have to say. There’s research suggesting it’s easier to have your food choices be influenced by closer and stronger connections. Intuitively, there’s also the fact that feedback coming from an independent entity—i.e. one not connected to a bigger pub or corporation—would seem more credible, or less likely to have their opinions colored by freebies.

Now as an individual talking to your personal sphere, you don’t have to be an expert just to try a food and say something about it. You’re an adult and it’s a free country; go ahead and praise what must be praised and shit on what must be shat on. But the dynamics of things change when crossing over to said blogger or influencer category, where you have a sizable audience you have influence over—for better or for worse.


The Grey Area of Influencers

Now there are individuals, i.e. seemingly “regular” folks and/or people you personally know. Then there are influencers and bloggers, a category Masarap Ba falls under, which somewhat toe the line between being “regular” people and being personified brands. Many may have started independently covering places or finds they discover and pay for themselves, but have since gotten invitations from brands or restaurants or even joined an agency. Many even monetize their platforms and/or turn it into a full-time gig. Nothing wrong with that; in theory there would be full disclosure in the case of complementary meals or paid posts (and this transparency isn’t always so transparent in real life, but that’s another subject for another day). Either way, being in this arena gives you the (sort of) best of both worlds: the relatability and credibility of the individual, and the opportunities available from working with brands.

taking photo on phone
Influencers and bloggers somewhat toe the line between being “regular” people and being personified brands. 
PHOTO BY Callie Morgan/Unsplash

Note, too, that credentials or experience in food or in writing aren’t entirely necessary to make it big in the influencer arena. We’re not saying these don’t contribute in any degree—but they’re not the sole determinants of success here. Factors like double-tap worthy visuals and the ability to connect to and engage with your audience are just as important, if not arguably more so in some ways; for many, their very relatability is what keeps their followers hooked.


Democratizing Food Reviews: the Good and the Bad

The wider range of voices has in many ways benefited the F&B industry. With more diversity comes less a chance of echo chambers—and in particular, echo chambers of the Rich and Famous—dominating the opinion sphere.

A commonly posed question is whether a certain product or place is “worth the hype,” i.e. whether it lives up to the expectations prompted by its price, the difficulty of getting it, or just its sheer popularity. Consider the hypothetical case of, say, a famous cake brand from Australia opening in our shores. Say it receives much praise from bigger media who receive only the best iterations of their products and calls for lining up for an hour or two just for orders—yet it doesn’t satisfy when it comes to what they actually serve paying customers. Perhaps the cake bit in their local outpost is found to be bland; perhaps there’s way too little icing for thickness of the cake layers. Or perhaps it’s just too damn overpriced for its small size. If enough customers let their voices be heard, it’d ideally encourage the brand to improve on their quality and give people what the drool-worthy desserts that they deserve. Or at the very least, it’d foster healthy discussion on what you get for what you pay—and allow people to make informed decisions on whether or not they’ll try it for themselves.

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People online will often discuss whether certain dishes, brands, or restaurants are "worth the hype." 
PHOTO BY Hans Fausto

Like any democratic system though, there are pitfalls. The fact that anyone can say anything means, well, that anyone can say anything—good or bad, carefully thought out or rage-typed within five minutes of trying some dish simply because they didn’t like it for whatever reason. Just look at the hellhole of mean, scathing reviews on websites like Yelp—a phenomenon many restaurateurs and other food figures (among them, Anthony Bourdain) have criticized.


The food-review sphere today also tends to be littered with extremes in order to get clicks. It’s heuristics at play; black and white is more sellable than shades of grey. When it’s good it’s called the “best”—and when it’s negative it’s shaped to sound extremely negative. Hyperboles are rampant, for entertainment’s sake. Yet the need for speed (and succinctness) leaves little room for nuance. It’s easy to see a place or brand be lambasted as “bad” and automatically turn away from even giving it a chance.

Sadly, negative reviews can damage restaurants (especially when aired early) and businesses by negatively affecting their revenue. In extreme cases it could even kill them. It’s unfortunate considering the industry’s just about getting back on its feet after the pandemic; it’s especially unfortunate when you consider that there are livelihoods at stake.

Also read: The Ever-Evolving Tale of the Entitled Influencer


For Influencers: Keeping Things Balanced

Bloggers, influencers, and other bigger figures would do well to listen to Spiderman's uncle, who famously spewed the line: “With great power comes great responsibility.” At this point, you’re not just talking to a few select friends, but an audience—an audience whose decisions have effects on restaurants and businesses. Which is to say, making sure you’ve got your facts right and the content balanced is of especially big importance.

The thing about good food reviews (good as in the quality of the review, not the food itself) is that they’re not exclusively hinged on personal opinion. Famed New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells explains in a 2019 piece how, as a critic, he doesn’t just write about his dissatisfaction: “a critic has to poke his head out of his turtle shell, look around and gesture, with stubby legs, toward the sources of dissatisfaction.” I.e., you’ve gotta throw in analytical thinking into the mix. “Complaining is as easy as breathing,” Wells writes. “Writing criticism is a real pain. That was a complaint, by the way.”


There has to be more to a negative review than simply saying “I don’t like it.” The very notion of like and dislike is subjective, hinged on personal preferences—and when it comes to personal preferences there is no right or wrong. One man’s “spicy” could be another man’s “bland”; one man’s “saccharine” could be yet another man’s “perfectly balanced.” Which is to say: just looking at preferences in themselves, no one’s is more right than the other. And hey, we all have preferences. Like and dislike are primal actions we don’t tend to think too hard about—we can try, but that’s more a top-bottom approach we take to deconstruct preferences that already exist.

Anyone can have an opinion; the ability (and freedom) to form them is one of those wonderful privileges of being human. But a good review goes beyond this, also considering objective factors. There’s also consideration of the other aspects of a dish, and how this particular iteration stacks up to others of its kind or of its genre or of its time. E.g., you wouldn’t lambast a chocolate cake for tasting like chocolate, or a curry for packing on the heat—unless prefaced with a disclaimer that you personally don’t like chocolate or spicy food (nothing wrong with that, btw).

There's more to a dish than meets the eye. 
PHOTO BY Kevin McCutcheon/Unsplash

It’s also important to be armed with knowledge than just spouting mindless rants—after all, there’s more to the value of food than just finished product. Consider things like the story of the brand or the dish. The cooking methods involved. The craftsmanship in making and replicating it day in and day out. The quality of ingredients. And so on. It takes knowledge (and ideally experience, but a little research never hurt anyone) to recognize and thus better appreciate these factors that largely go unnoticed—factors that go well beyond whether a product is at the onset “masarap.” Going back to the case of the fictional cake brand, it’s very much possible that what many consider “bland” just happens to be the standard in its country of origin—however much it might differ from that of Filipinos. It might be physically small but be made with sustainably sourced ingredients and/or handmade by artisans—factors that naturally (and justifiably) command higher prices.


So How Should We Share Negative Feedback?

It’s as inevitable as getting old, taxes, and death: you will run into bad examples of things at some point. Perhaps it’s a strawberry shortcake with barely any strawberries; perhaps it’s a restaurant whose service left much to be desired. You seek justice, or a cathartic release at the minimum. What do you do?

As with any relationship really, communication is key. Before exploding online, it’s always worth bringing the issue up with the business or restaurant directly—especially when the slip-up is one rooted in human error and is within the resto's or business' control, e.g. overcooked steak or mushy pasta. Many times these establishments would be open to replacing your food with a better-executed version, free of charge. It’s best if this can be done while in their premises so your query can be addressed right away, but in a pinch, reaching out to them privately through email or social media works, too.


Being specific with your complaints (e.g., don’t just say “the food was bad”—actually pinpoint which factors were bad) is especially helpful, as is focusing on getting the problems resolved. Sending negative feedback can indeed be helpful to restaurants so they’d know what to improve on—and ultimately make things better for everyone. It’s a win-win-win situation, at least in theory. Most importantly, don’t forget to treat them with respect. These are still human beings you’re interacting with at the end of the day after all.

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It's best to bring issues up directly with the brand or restaurant first before blasting your complaints online. 
PHOTO BY Unsplash/Maxim Ilyahov

If you’ve ticked all those boxes and still haven’t gotten what you feel you deserve, then it’s acceptable to grieve online if you must; you did your part. But don’t forget to be transparent about the full details of your experience—covering both the bad, but also the good, and being constructive overall. Meanness for the sake of meanness is plain assholery.

Take What You See Online With a Grain of Salt

Communication is a two-way street; there’s the message being conveyed, but also the people reading them. Yes, the latter refers to you, dear Spotter. In theory we’d all be smart of what we consume on the interwebs than just devouring them as is and uncritically believing them—but who has the time to pause and think about those things when they’re working eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week (or more)? Still, as consumers of online content by bloggers and influencers, it’s just as important to be discerning of what you see, read, and watch online before making decisions.


Key to all of this is asking questions. Look into factors like who said or published this review, what were the conditions of their visit(s), and what their reasonings were for their conclusions? Did they make this broad statement about a burger joint’s food sucking based on one bad experience, or multiple visits? Was the bun stale because it was served as such, or because they took 20 minutes of taking IG-worthy photos before actually digging in?

This taking-with-grain-of-salt isn’t limited to negative reviews, of course—the same applies to positive stuff, too. Is this person genuinely a fan of this burger, or do they just like it because it’s owned by their brother’s tita’s cousin’s long-lost toenail?

Also read: What Happens When an Influencer Demands Freebies?

Negativity Isn’t All Negative

Don’t get us wrong—the objective here is not to limit what you see online to mindless positivity, which is just as toxic. Contrary to popular belief, negativity can be healthy—it can give customers the impression that a resto or business is more trustworthy, for one,  and there are reports that customers are more inclined to visit restaurants that respond well to negative reviews. On the part of reviewers, how said negativity is aired is key here.


As food writer and culture critic Theodore Gioia writes, a critic’s pen can be an “instrument of healing.” While The Daily Telegraph food critic William Sitwell likens to a sharpened pen to a knife that can “twist… into chefs and restaurateurs,” Gioia argues: the knife isn’t merely a weapon for violence, but also a tool for other purposes—among them, serving as a proverbial scalpel for a patient in critical condition in need of surgery (i.e., helping address issues in the resto industry). And when the industry improves, so does the experience of its customers. That way, everybody wins.

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