Can Yelp and other crowd-sourced review sites be trusted? That's the lingering question I had after reviewing Juana La Cubana, a luncheonette in a mobile home community clubhouse in Dania Beach.
It was a charming family-run place, but I found the food to be average. Yet Yelp ranks it among the best restaurants in Broward County. At one point, Juana was listed fourth among Broward eateries. It was ranked seventh on Friday morning, with an average close to a perfect five stars among 265 user reviews.
It makes me wonder how the algorithms work, what strange forces might be in play, and whether ratings can be manipulated by bots or so-called AstroTurf efforts coordinated by friends and family. And then, there are cases such as Juana La Cubana, where a restaurant can be a cult hit or tourist sensation because of a quirky location, even if the food doesn't match.
Yelp has emerged as the dominant player in the crowd-sourced food-review field, but it isn't the only site out there. There's also TripAdvisor, and users can leave ratings on Google and Facebook. Foodies also post discussions about restaurants without star rankings on Chowhound. And then there's Zagat, which began the diner-generated ratings concept with its annual printed survey in 1970s New York in response to less transparent travel and restaurant guides, such as Michelin and Mobil.
Now that I'm a full-time dining critic, I've been a bit baffled over the differences in my views and those of the masses. But beyond the subjective matters of opinion, I've found that Yelp is not always factually accurate: Among the top 10 Broward restaurants listed Friday were two Italian restaurants in Miami-Dade.
So it seems Yelp's filters and search functions aren't always perfect. And the way user reviews get placed on the app also leaves me wondering. Reviews placed in the top spots on the first screen seem random, both chronologically and in matching the overall rating. There's no function to sort reviews from the most recent to most dated. Why not? As a critic, I always want to know how a restaurant is trending, and if something has happened recently to affect the overall quality.
Bottom line: Yelp might be OK to quickly get a broad gauge on a restaurant, but it's not the be all and end all.
My advice: Get your restaurant guidance wherever you want (including by reading my reviews), but always go with your own gut (and taste buds).
And for the record, the Cuban eatery I like most in Broward — besides the outposts of solid regional chains Las Vegas and Padrino's — is A Touch of Cuba, a quaint place with a dining patio just east of Dixie Highway and the FEC railroad tracks at 117 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd. The food is delicious and artfully presented, and the prices are reasonable. In Miami-Dade, I've always been partial to Puerto Sagua, 700 Collins Ave., a South Beach institution that I've been going to long before the tourists and supermodels descended. It was closed for six months after a fire last summer, and I haven't checked it out since it reopened in January.
Feel free to send along your top Cuban spots in South Florida.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 954-356-4508. Instagram: @mikemayoeats.