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TikTok Creators Are Reinventing the Scathing Restaurant Review

“How are you gonna call yourself a French restaurant, and not have French onion soup on the menu?” Begins a recent video on The VIP List’s TikTok account. “They really said, ‘You’re keto tonight.’ Like every single appetizer came out wrapped in lettuce!” The narrator continues in the aggressive tone of a practiced highschool bully. The visuals are quick as they film dinner at the downtown New York French restaurant La Marchande: a dab of caviar on steaming brioche and lettuce-cupped tomato crudité, all lit by the blinding iPhone flash now ubiquitous on Restaurant Review Tok. “It’s a no from us. Go cry about it.”

Absurdly hyperbolic reviews like this aren’t unusual for 24 year olds Meg Radice and Audrey Jongens, the pair behind The VIP List, who have made a career out of poking holes in a restaurant’s truffle shaving technique and calling their own fans “peasants.”

In fact, reviews posted by TikTok accounts like The VIP List and StephTravels NYC, who created the series “Rec or Wreck” (you can imagine the premise), are staples of the TikTok restaurant review niche. They often rack up hundreds of thousands of followers for the poster, and sometimes bring in millions of views. The format is simple, but effective: The creator spends between 30 and 45 seconds giving the viewer a rapidfire rundown of a restaurant’s menu, vibe, and service. Then, like a Roman emperor passing judgment at the coliseum, they deem the spot worthy or, oftentimes, not.

As a generation of TikTok tastemakers enter the world of restaurant criticism, it’s easy to write their negative reviews off as shallow (social media rarely leaves much room for nuance). But as creators begin to usher in a renewed era of scathing restaurant reviews—a genre that largely disappeared during the height of the pandemic— accounts like The VIP List have developed their own type of critical acumen after visiting hundreds of restaurants. Their reviews fall into a new category of eviscerating restaurant criticism, somewhere between a disgruntled Yelp rant and 2,000 word pan in a national newspaper. Whether audiences—and old-school critics—like it or not, this novel form of restaurant criticism is likely here to stay.

Jongens and Radice, who started reviewing restaurants in 2020 as the pandemic began, have cultivated a loyal TikTok fanbase—they have almost 400,000 followers as of publication—eager to hear how the pair might tear down a restaurant next. “The joy I get when you guys hate the place is unreal,” reads a comment on that brutal review of the downtown Manhattan brasserie. “LMAOOOOO SAVAGERY,” another enthusiastic follower posted under the video.

The appeal of a scorchingly negative review is undeniable. While Adam Platt, former restaurant critic at New York Magazine, is not himself a TikTok devotee, he admits that the negative TikTok review has staying power. “That kind of visual criticism, which is more immediate—I think it’s the future of something,” he says. “It’s certainly affecting how consumers make their choices.”

food, tiktok creators are reinventing the scathing restaurant review
food, tiktok creators are reinventing the scathing restaurant review

The goal of a TikTok restaurant review—to convey the experience of eating at a restaurant—is similar to that of a traditional critic’s. But according to Soleil Ho, restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, that’s where the similarities in these two genres of restaurant review end.

At the foundation of this divergence, Ho posits, is the motivation and purpose of the professional critic’s review. In any less-than-glowing piece of criticism, Ho engages with the restaurant constructively, sifting through what could be improved and noting what worked well in an effort to convey to the reader the inherently nuanced experience of eating at any restaurant. “A lot of the reviews that I write that have looked negative, I have seen as mixed,” says Ho. When they questioned the “beige, repetitive, and one-note” menu at The French Laundry, they were also sure to mention the “delightful broccoli parfait” and “quietly marvelous, ruby-tinted slice of duck breast.”

As for a TikTok account like The VIP List, driving engagement is a necessity of the platform, and posting hyperbolized reviews is essential to capturing views and growing audiences. Even the rare mixed review is made extreme through the lens of The VIP List—“Sushi on Jones is the definition of mid,” they declare in one video. There is little room for the sort of nuance Ho employs.

This type of content, which revolves around sizzling-hot, albeit undetailed, takes, is at the heart of what makes TikTok so popular. “Our generation, and especially Gen Z,” Jongens says, “doesn’t have the attention span to be reading an entire article most of the time.” A TikTok review, on the other hand, “gives you the most important things you need to know about the restaurant, and you can really choose what’s a highlight in those 30 seconds,” she says.

Platforms like Yelp and Google Reviews have democratized the art of the restaurant review, allowing anyone with an internet connection to publicly post their compliments and complaints (fact-checked or not). The negative restaurant review is also not a new phenomenon—it’s a time honored tradition. For years, critics have trafficked in negative restaurant reviews, often relying on the sense of scandal and pearl-clutching to keep readers engaged. “That’s the way it was when I started writing in print magazines. That’s the way it’s always going to be,” Platt says of the staying power of a negative review. Just like negative restaurant reviews tend to outperform positive ones on TikTok, these newspaper and magazine reviews are often the ones that go viral online.

There’s a certain voyeuristic glee to be gained from reading a review by a professional critic intent on describing in incisive detail each and every letdown they experienced during a fateful restaurant visit. Who could forget Pete Wells’ infamous 2012 take on Guy Fieri’s “Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar” in the New York Times? The reviewer was left so dumbstruck that he wrote an entire article’s worth of horrified questions directed at Fieri: “Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex?”

But no one writes a restaurant takedown like the British critics who seem to make a sport of scathing restaurant reviews. In the sharpest words possible, critics like the Guardian’s Jay Rayner regularly eviscerate restaurants with glee. At one point, Rayner likened one unlucky restaurant’s service to the experience of an “unlubricated colonoscopy.”

In the turmoil of 2020, though, a negative review became hard to find. Even the snarkiest critics, including Radice and Jongens, refrained from ragging on restaurants. “We knew how damaging it could be if we posted something negative when [restaurants were] barely keeping their doors open,” says Radice. “But now, the restaurant industry is thriving, and we want to be honest with our followers.”

As digital media companies vie for increased traffic and social media engagement, the role of established media critics may also become closer to that of Jongen and Radice: to pull in and engage with readers as their taste and media consumption shifts. But unlike the clear-cut policies in place for critics at most established media companies, the ethics of TikTok restaurant reviews remain shaky at best. As Ho notes, many influencers are paid to create content around a restaurant which is then framed as a review.

Although FTC regulations require creators to disclose any association with the brands they feature, the honesty of a paid-for review can still be hard to measure. “There is no code of ethics for influencers,” says Ho. Jongens and Radice see things differently. On the rare occasion that they accept a comped meal, they say that they ensure their review is honest. If a comped meal is subpar, they’ll offer two choices to the restaurant: post a negative review, or post nothing at all. “Regardless of whether it’s comped, we are always going to be honest,” they say.

Now, Radice and Jongens say they’re more interested in reviewing the “best of the best” restaurants that “don’t give a fuck about influencers,” and thus pay for all of their own meals. Some creators, like Cassandra Matthews of the TikTok and Instagram accounts @cass_andthecity, think of their content as curatorial rather than critical, and avoid posting any negative reviews even if they dislike a restaurant experience. “On my page, I really focus on the good,” Matthews says. “I really don’t want to hurt anybody’s business.”

Maybe Matthews is right to be judicious—after all, these videos can rack up hundreds of thousands of views, and have very real effects on a restaurant’s future. Jongens and Radice claim one restaurant’s books completely filled up for two weeks after they posted a positive review that received 3.5 million views. “People were coming in and ordering exactly what we got,” Radice says.

Still, for the pair behind The VIP List there is as much joy in making these negative reviews as their fans find in consuming them. “If we’re spending $1,000 on a dinner and it’s bad, we have to get something out of that,” Radice says. “People want the drama,” Jongens adds. “And that’s what we’re giving.”

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