Yelped: How a Palisadian Restaurant is (Accidentally) Challenging Crowdsourced Food Reviews

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

We are a diverse community, but there is one passion that unites many. Palisadians love dining out, and nearly everyone holds strong opinions on food, wine and cocktails.

We know this because nothing fills the Palisadian-Post postbag faster than Rick Caruso revealing a new place to test-drive the taste buds.

Yet even by these standards, Tallula’s, which opened on Entrada Drive in May, has prompted fiery debate among the town’s eaterati. And it is a debate that has gone global.

Some argue that the high-end Mexican restaurant is overpriced, pushing the gastronomic envelope toward faddy gimmickry.

Fans proclaim, with just as much certainty, that in a town dominated by regional Italian cuisines, and Pearl Dragon’s Wing Ding Burger, the adventurous twists on dishes such as Mexican Sauerkraut and Duck Chilaquiles are a breath of fresh air.

Normally this would all calm down over a few months as the eatery fine-tunes the menu.

But, in this case, Tallula’s has also taken on a role that’s not on any menu—it’s become a global test case for how social media and crowdsourcing treats new ventures.

It is now accepted wisdom in Hollywood that Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates critical responses to films, can make or break a vulnerable movie. Since 2004, Yelp has wielded similar power over the always-fragile restaurant business.

Critics, long wary of Yelp’s rules, have found their exemplar of unfair treatment in the highly-filtered selection of crowdsourced reviews for Tallula’s.

The Santa Monica Canyon restaurant has become a rallying cry for fairness and transparency on Yelp.

The rebellion was born six weeks ago when Eater posed the question in a headline: “Why is the Yelp rating for Tallula’s so low?”

The online magazine points out that, with celebrated chef and “eat your veggie” author Jeremy Fox and the backing of experienced restaurateurs Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan, who have also created Huckleberry, Rustic Canyon, Cassia and, in the Palisades, Sweet Rose Creamery, “It’s truly bizarre to see their newish restaurant sitting around with a two-star Yelp average.”

“The dismal ratings seem to be weighed down by the lack of any positive reviews,” wrote analyst Matthew Kang.

Most of the 49 reviews are mixed or negative, but there are also 131 “other reviews” that are “not recommended” by Yelp for failing to meet its standards.

“Digging into this wasteland of banned reviews finds there are pages and pages of five-star reviews that are grey and hard to read, left out of Tallula’s public page,” Kang said.

“The ratio of accepted to not-accepted reviews looks out of line, even for Yelp, and especially for a restaurant that was this highly anticipated.”

Owner Loeb contacted Yelp, who told him they have no control over how reviews are treated on their pages—“it’s the algorithm,” they told him, which filters out reviews suspected as written by insiders. But there are also a lot of Palisadians who like Tallula’s.

Andy Gavin, the Castellammare video game tycoon and restaurant investor, said earlier this year his short-lived Ramen Roll faced similar issues in Culver City.

He said Yelp suppresses questionably-positive reviews more often than the suspiciously negative: “You get bad reviews from ex-server’s boyfriends and commercial rivals, who write fake one-star reviews. Yelp is very aggressive and not biz-friendly. If all of Tallula’s reviews counted, they would be at least a point higher.”

The Eater article has been discussed in Asia and Europe, where one commentator said, “There are limits to the intelligence of crowds. Amplify that on a platform whose rules of engagement are commercially confidential and you have to ask: What is really going on with Yelp?

“Is highlighting the negative a ploy to make owners advertise on Yelp?”

Yelp denies this, saying, once again, they have no control over the “neutral” algorithm. But, they said, they are open to improving it.

Some critics suggest Yelp should add a “health warning” onto suspect reviews rather than hiding them away.

Others suggest the hungry should adulterate Yelp with other review sites, such as Google, which currently gives Tallula’s a strong 4.2 and Trip Advisor, which gives it a mouthwatering 4.5 out of five.

Or, as with many other restaurants in the Palisades, simply try it yourself.