We have used Luminoso’s state-of-the-art text analytics software to tackle Chinese food. Thousands of Yelp reviews from hundreds of Chinese restaurants were entered into Luminoso’s Insight Engine for analysis. (We will neither confirm nor deny that we ran this analysis to pick a lunch spot.)
What we found is that the quality of food is by far the most important factor in reviewer sentiment. Across the price spectrum, and over the 15 mile radius encompassed, people rated restaurants based on the dishes they consumed. Restaurants were particularly judged on their authenticity, particularly in Boston’s Chinatown.
A good example of this phenomenon is crab rangoon. Crab rangoon is American, probably invented at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco in 1956 and it’s not served at more authentic Chinese restaurants. Mentions of “crab,” “crab rangoon,” and “crab [various misspellings of “rangoon”]” pop up a lot in reviews of restaurants rated at three stars and below. In reviews of top-rated restaurants, the term “crab” disappears entirely, giving way to scallion pancakes and soup dumplings.
In contrast, the discussion of table service correlates only slightly with positive reviews, and is strongly linked to negative reviews. Good and great service is easily ignored by food-focused patrons, but bad service can ruin a meal. Reviews which mentioned a “waiter” or “waitress” were usually negative. Table service, like editing, is an invisible art, noticed only in the breach. However, reviews that mentioned the “chef” were likely to be positive, especially when chefs were mentioned by name.
As with service, restaurant décor and ambiance is noticed more in negative reviews than positive reviews. However, this is obscured because this is reflected in how people talk about their food. If you search for “cockroach” (which, thanks to Luminoso’s sophisticated modeling, includes reviews that refer to “a thing scurrying across the floor”), you’ll find the expected majority of negative reviews. However, in these reviews, “cockroach” is closely associated with concepts like “tasteless”, “bland”, and “disgusting”. From this, we can infer that the off-putting setting made the food less enjoyable.
Our takeaway is that while the quality of food is the driving factor in how people rate a restaurant, bad service and décor (particularly of the many-legged variety) can ruin one’s enjoyment of it. Even though Yelp reviews may be focused on food, the entire restaurant is being reviewed, consciously or not.