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Log In, Let's Eat: How the new media landscape is transforming Ann Arbor's foodie culture

Photo Illustration by Daily Staff
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By Kayla Upadhyaya, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 7, 2011

Sitting down to enjoy a meal at one of the countless restaurants in Ann Arbor, one may not realize his or her dish choice may have been critiqued by a number of resources. Some Ann Arbor favorites have been placed in the spotlight, like last year when Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger and Tios Mexican Cafe were featured on Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food.” But there are so many food favorites offered in Ann Arbor that not every restaurant receives the attention it may deserve.

Luckily, professional opinions are becoming less important. The Internet has opened a whole new realm of food critique, making it possible for home chefs, students and people who simply love food to share their point of views and analyze restaurants just like the professionals.

Social media has significantly changed the way we get information on food and restaurants — whether it’s through a vast interconnected network of foodies on Yelp, an online service that gives everyday food lovers across the nation a voice, or through a food community more specific to the University like Wolverine CuiZine. A student-run project exploring food from all angles, Wolverine CuiZine allows students to give their take on recent food trends and Ann Arbor’s local resources. Individual food bloggers are also influencing the world of food reviewing, infusing their commentaries with personality and voice that professional critics may not be able to offer.

The Internet has made this “food democratization” possible by opening up accessibility and providing more personalized and informal platforms to read and write about the universal topic of food.

The people’s review

More and more restaurant windows boast bright red stickers expressing approval from Yelp, an online city guide that helps people find places to eat, shop and drink. Yelp has created a community of amateur reviewers who share their food opinions with others, and it has opened up dialogue between businesses and their customers.

Anyone can contribute reviews to Yelp and read the information or search for places to go. Though the site features reviews on a range of establishments, it focuses substantially on reviewing restaurants and places to eat.

Yelp differs from Zagat, a website born from the Zagat Survey, which was created in 1979 as a codified way to rate restaurants. Featuring a complex rating system based on a 30-point scale, Zagat is a tool for the gourmet glitterati. To access the actual Zagat scores by subcategory and read the detailed reviews in their entirety, those interested must become premium members, which is fairly expensive.

On the other hand, Yelp is a resource open to all. There are no paywalls or restrictions, just a free flow of information compiled in an easy-to-search database. In this way, Yelp is aligned to the idea that food reviewing should be open to all people interested in food, not just the culinary elite.

Zagat and Yelp highlight different types of restaurants. It’s difficult to find information on Zagat’s website and even the annual print edition of the Zagat Survey isn’t all that thorough.

Yelp covers more than 400 restaurants in the Ann Arbor area. The only Ann Arbor establishment featured in the 2011 edition of Zagat is Zingerman’s Delicatessen, and the blurb is merely a strung-together amalgamation of short quotes about the restaurant.

Annette Janik is the community manager for Yelp in the greater Metro Detroit area. She explained that her role is to introduce people to places in and around Metro Detroit, and getting them excited about businesses in their own backyards.

Janik said some people believe Yelp is a place where people go to rant about poor dining experiences or restaurants they don’t like, but the truth is quite the opposite. According to Janik, about 75 percent of the reviews on Yelp are positive.