Some people travel to see sights. I travel to eat. And, since there is only a limited amount of meals you can eat on any given trip, if you want to make the most of those, you use online tools to help you find restaurants. TripAdvisor is my favorite but sometimes the ratings can be pretty silly and flat out mysterious as to how other people drew such conclusions. So, my husband and I, in the interest of science, set out to crack the TripAdvisor restaurant rating code by visiting almost all of the top 100 restaurants in our town (Basel, Switzerland). Here's what we found out, and hopefully it will be of help to you.
Check the Language
If you're traveling outside of your home country, you'll be tempted to read only reviews written in a language you understand--most likely English. The problem is, many English language reviews in non-English speaking countries are written by tourists. People like you who don't know the local cuisine. They may say, "Oh, this is a 5 star Moroccan restaurant!" but frankly, this is the only Moroccan restaurant they have been to, so their judgment is questionable. Look at reviews written in the local language. You can interpret the stars, no problem and Google Translate can give you a pretty good picture of what the people said.
Location, Location, Location
If you're on vacation, it may be important to you to stay near the tourist centers. That's fine, but understand that restaurants that cater to tourists specialize in getting people in the door, not on repeat customers. If you're really interested in the local cuisine, look for restaurants a little off the beaten path. You want a restaurant that keeps the locals coming back. Don't worry about language--I've never been unsuccessful at communicating that I want food when in a restaurant. Sometimes I've thought I've ordered one thing but gotten another. No worries. It's all about the adventure.
Look for the Key Words
TripAdvisor pulls out keywords from people's reviews and lists them, focusing on specific dishes. Pay attention to these! If everyone is raving about the Steak, order the chicken at your own risk.
A Heavy TripAdvisor Focus is Actually a Bad Sign
Every highly rated restaurant that I've been to that had food that I'd classify as "meh" had TripAdvisor stuff plastered all over their website, doors, and one restaurant even handed us a TripAdvisor card to remind us to rate their restaurant. Yes, it's good for business, but people tend to be too nice, and all these reminders encourage people to rate the restaurant when they otherwise wouldn't.
Read the 3 and 4 Star Reviews
The 5-star reviews tend to be written by people who are trying to be nice. The 1-star reviews by people who would find fault with anything. Those reviews in the middle are where you'll find the real information about the restaurants. These are the people who tend to actually think about what they are saying rather than simply giving the restaurant a high rating.
Don't Compare Across Price
Theoretically, a 5-star restaurant is a 5-star restaurant, but that's not how it works. People tend to rate a restaurant based on expectations, rather than a straight continuum. That's how you get 5-star McDonald's. Was it super clean and the staff friendly? Then 5 stars. Does it compare at all to the Michelin-rated restaurant down the street? Of course not.
Hopefully, these tips help you out as you pick a restaurant for your business trip or your vacation. Because there's nothing better than food.