“It’s a bit of a hole-in-the-wall, but that’s actually a good sign that it’s authentic, as the common wisdom goes,” Charles W. writes in a 2012 Yelp review of a taqueria in Philadelphia’s Ninth Street Market.
If you take Charles’ term—“authentic”—and type it into the search bar of Yelp, you’ll see a list of more than 1,900 restaurants in Philadelphia alone. Out of the first 40 results, 38 offer some variety of ethnic cuisine. Of those 38 eateries, almost half serve Mexican food. What’s going on here?
Since launching in 2004, the review site Yelp has become an essential venue for a growing class of smartphone-carrying urbanites to discuss their buying experiences. It is hugely popular: By 2013, the site had more than 67 million user-contributed reviews of all sorts of businesses. These reviews were read in turn by more than 139 million unique monthly visitors. By dint of its sheer size, the site offers a rich glimpse into contemporary consumer sentiment. Yet few have thought critically about the content of these reviews. What would a close reading reveal? Would it help us understand something about the multiethnic, postindustrial city? Could Yelp be doing important cultural work at a moment of increasing gentrification, immigration, and urban inequality?
Before we answer those questions, we have to pin down who exactly is contributing to the site. According to Yelp’s demographic data, its users come from a narrow cross-section of urban denizens: They are disproportionately young, white, childless, wealthy, and highly educated. In 2013, Yelp reported that visitors with incomes over $150,000 were represented at a rate of 30 percent higher than the internet at large. Its marketing materials proclaim that its users are “more affluent … and with higher spending tendencies than non-Yelp consumers. Predictably, they are also well-educated: 72 percent of Yelpers have either college or graduate degrees.”
These figures remind us that the rise of Yelp is inextricable from broader economic and social transformations that have occurred over the past 40 years. Specifically, Yelp is a byproduct of young, educated, upwardly mobile Americans—those Richard Florida calls the “creative class” and David Ley dubs the “new middle class”—turning toward urban lifestyles and knowledge-based modes of production. Even as deindustrialization and joblessness continue apace, select cities have become sites of desire for this new breed of urbanites.
There are many possible explanations for their return to cities: a revolution in gender roles, government interventions, falling urban crime rates, secular shifts in employment, the mass incarceration of city-dwelling African Americans, even increased environmental awareness. But I would argue this phenomenon also has deep cultural origins. Beginning in the 1960s, young white Americans, disillusioned with the bland uniformity of their parents’ suburban lifestyle, began to fetishize the city as a refuge of authentic living. If middle-class life was mass-produced, prepackaged, and soulless, old working-class neighborhoods provided a gritty counterpoint. Rejecting mass-market industrial food, these new urbanites turned to the unvarnished, the artisanal, the seasonal, the handmade. Ethnic and racial diversity became a salve for the homogeneity of the white middle-class experience.
By the 1980s, elite tastes gave way to omnivorousness for many in the urban middle class. Cosmopolitanism—consumption of a wide variety of foods, neighborhoods, fashions, music—began to supplant high-class snobbery. Taste, and demonstrations of one’s “good taste” outside of the mass-consumption marketplace, became a key marker of individuality and social distinction. Singular food experiences—the most delicious offal taco, the rarest single-origin coffee—took on almost totemic significance.
That said, the return to cities and this upheaval in consumer culture has been accompanied by very real problems. One is inequality. While some argue that the new restaurant economy brings trickle-down benefits in the form of service jobs, these positions pay little, rarely offer benefits, and are usually nonunion. In Philadelphia, many of these jobs go to immigrants: A recent study found that new arrivals are most often employed as cooks, cashiers, and janitors. Immigrant workers also remain stubbornly undercompensated. Ultimately, the gentrifying city has become a starkly polarized place: high-wage (mostly native-born white) “creatives” on one hand, and low-wage, nonunion (mostly immigrant, black, and brown) workers who serve them on the other.
Yelp helps its users navigate that increasingly broad divide. Reviewers use it to recount their experiences in unfamiliar spaces of ethnic and class difference. For them, Yelp has become an important way to fix their place in the unequal urban landscape by making claims of distinction and insider status—engaging in the sort of intellectual performance valued by other privileged urbanites. For Yelp’s readers, it is a modern Baedeker: an urbanite’s guidebook for food adventuring on the margins of the gentrifying city. Yet, the irony here is stark: In their search for authentic experiences, Yelpers glorify the very people that gentrification threatens to marginalize.
In order to explore this phenomenon more deeply, let us examine one narrow Yelp category: reviews of South Philadelphia’s most popular Mexican restaurants. All are located relatively close to each other in the gentrifying neighborhood of central South Philly. Their menus are nearly identical, which should not come as a surprise: Most of the restaurant owners hail from the Mexican state of Puebla and many come from the small town of San Mateo Ozolco, located high in the country’s central plateau. In addition to tacos and tortas, most serve a selection of Poblano specialties: pipián blanco (a turkey stew with peanuts), chiles en nogado (fried peppers stuffed with ground meat and fruit), and especially, mole poblano (a rich sauce made of charred chilies, nuts, spices, and chocolate.)
Yelp’s users visit these restaurants in droves. Combing through thousands of their reviews, it becomes apparent that they are searching for one thing above all else: “authenticity.” Reviewers are constantly assessing the alleged verisimilitude of a restaurant’s food, atmosphere, and even the ethnicity of its employees. Naming the “authentic” has an important social function for these reviewers. As they exhibit their cross-cultural literacy and cosmopolitanism, they signal their belonging in the multiethnic city. By categorizing what is “really Mexican,” Yelpers make a claim for their own status as true urbanites. As philosopher Lisa Heldke suggests, white food tourists use “ethnic Other[s]” as “a resource … to meet [their] expectations, fill [their] own desires, and thereby embellish [their] … identity.” This last point is essential: Yelpers, while delineating what does and does not seem authentic, are also busy constructing their own idealized personas. As amateur ethnographers, they bring back reports from their forays into spaces marked by ethnic difference and are rewarded for displays of good taste, acquiring what Dave Grazian has called the “bragging rights that accompany the experience of authenticity.” With every review, Yelpers burnish their own social status.
Over and over again, reviewers pick up on scenic cues as markers of authenticity. When deployed correctly, these details reassure culinary tourists of their knowledge of and comfort with ethnic difference. Consumers use an ethnic restaurant’s décor as a heuristic for Otherness. Foodservice industry experts have found that environmental signs—decorations, music, clientele, even the staff’s dress—are among the most important means of authenticating an ethnic restaurant. Not surprisingly, trade magazines encourage restaurateurs to think carefully about how they adorn their dining rooms.
On this front, Yelp’s savvy consumers consider themselves to be above manipulation. They read the sombreros, paper cacti, and piñatas of “Americanized” Mexican restaurants as heavy-handed pandering. Familiar, Corona-branded décor keeps authenticity hounds at bay—and earns their angry recriminations on Yelp. Tres Jalapeños, on Eighth and Christian Streets, is frequently critiqued for its garish dining room; one reviewer jokes that the eating area was littered with “decorations left over from Cinco de Mayo.” He distinguishes himself from the insufficiently adventurous by declaring that “this is the place people will go if they’re afraid to be in an authentic Mexican restaurant.” There is barely suppressed rage at an imaginary straw man—the suburbanite or yuppie—who refuses to consume a sufficient amount of ethnic difference.
On the other hand, one of the most important authenticating signifiers in South Philly taquerias seems to be a lack of attention to décor. Racks of Mexican groceries and garish fluorescent lights are both read as signs that the owner are not catering to gringos—and thus will not be “dumbing down” the food for less adventurous palettes. So-called “anti-décor” is a sensory reminder of the distance (in terms of class, natural origin, and ethnicity) between the consumer and the restaurant’s employees. Pete Wells, the New York Times food critic, describes this idea in a May 1, 2012, article: “For a certain kind of food enthusiast, there is a deeply felt but little examined belief that immigrant-run restaurants … should not pay too much attention to their appearance. Just as a $400 haircut can spell days of bad press for a politician, a dining room outfitted with anything that might be termed design can raise suspicions of misplaced priorities.”
Mexican food aficionados seem to share this sentiment. Reviewers heap praise on spaces that are “small,” “dingy,” “cramped,” or “dusty”—all promising signs that the food will be on the mark. In a four-star review of El Costeño, a restaurant in the Ninth Street Market, Melissa W. writes that the place is “authentic … [it] is small and dingy but still manages to draw a crowd because the food is totally worth it.” Rachel S. puts it more bluntly: “It’s a virtual shithole but the food is so good and fresh, you won’t care how dirty everything else is.” The best food, these Yelpers claim, comes from those restaurants too humble to invest in glitzy interiors. One reviewer of Taco Loco (a modified RV on Washington Avenue) provides little commentary other than a list of attributes that betoken unvarnished, authentic, tasty Mexican food:
Authentic. Strange sauces.
No English. Exotic sodas.
Loud. Scary at nite.
Extensive menu. Soccer.
In order for that Yelper to certify Mexican food as authentic, it should be “dirty,” “strange,” “exotic,” even a little “scary.”
In some reviews, descriptions of the décor shade into reports on the ethnicity of the restaurant’s customers—as if they too were pieces of scenery. Reviewing Los Gallos, one Yelper writes: “The place is really cool. The decoration is amazing inside and it breathes authenticity. Most of the patrons are Hispanic, which is usually a good sign.” Melissa L.’s review contains a similar slippage, shifting from an account of Los Gallos’ interior into a bit of amateur ethnography: “Signs of an authentic meal to come: Mexican sundries for sale at the front, florescent [sic] lights and zero attempt to create atmosphere, more Latin Americans bellied up for a meal than gringos like myself [and] sweet tropical fruit sodas in glass bottles with no nutritional info … THIS is real Mexican food.” For Melissa, the presence of Latino patrons becomes yet another encouraging aesthetic feature. Like her descriptions of the inanimate décor, it signals that Melissa has ventured far into the realm of real Mexican-ness.
In a personal reflection on “cultural food colonialism,” Lisa Heldke confesses a similar set of motivations: “I could not ignore the fact that underneath, or alongside, or over and above all these other reasons for my adventuring, I was motivated by a deep desire to have contact with and somehow to own an experience of an Exotic Other to make myself more interesting. Food adventuring made me a participant in cultural colonialism.” While “colonialism” is perhaps too strong a word for this kind of consumption—a term like “slumming” might be more appropriate—Heldke is on to something: Online reports of contact with the exotic are intended to make their authors seem “more interesting.”
David Grazian reaches a similar conclusion in Blue Chicago (2003), his study of the quixotic search for authenticity in urban blues clubs. Grazian suggests that an encounter with a racial or ethnic other and the subsequent unspoken frisson of danger are keys to achieving hipness in the postmodern city. Over the past decade in Philadelphia, Yelp has become the medium to discuss similar experiences on the “exotic” and exhilarating frontier of Mexican cuisine.
By way of comparison, Philadelphians assess non-Mexican ethnic restaurants with different categories in mind, even if authenticity remains an important signifier. Reviews of Modo Mio, which serves highly regarded Italian cuisine, emphasize the “authentic Italian experience” and “authentic Italian style and feel.” But authenticity here connotes positive characteristics: the food is alternately “hearty, delicious, seasonal,” “homemade,” “regional,” or “old-world.” Meanwhile, the décor is “minimalist” and “cozy”—never “cramped” or “dingy.” The place might be rough-hewn, but there is nothing particularly scary about it. That is not to say that reviewers do not still traffic in ethnic essentialism (there are plenty of wistful references to “Nonna’s cooking”). But unlike patrons of Mexican restaurants, Modo Mio’s customers celebrate its rusticity without a side helping of exoticism.
Back in South Philly’s taquerias, other Yelpers use their reviews to explicitly claim cultural literacy and authority. Many celebrate the presence of—and their appreciation for—blaring Spanish-language television. “The telenovelas playing on the two big TVs are … quite entertaining,” says Melissa W. At El Jarocho, Stefanie A. finds that “Spanish tele-novellas [sic] make it a must-go.” These reviewers understand that in order to mark themselves as knowledgeable and effortlessly cosmopolitan, they should casually drop the term telenovela (Mexican soap opera) into their review. This performance of cross-cultural knowledge may seem benign, but there is something self-congratulatory in how they celebrate their competence in (and essential distance from) the Otherness of Mexican culture.
Just as those Yelpers demonstrate their cultural literacy by mentioning telenovelas, other reviewers draw authority for their claims based on personal experiences. This often means mention of California. Scores of reviews begin with something akin to Jan. V’s claim: “I grew up in California … I definitely know my tacos.” Shaun Q. reproduces this sentiment nearly verbatim down the page: “As a native of SoCal, I should hope that I have some ability to discern good or bad Mexican food.” Deann M., who compiled a list of recommended Mexican restaurants under the name “Viva La Mexico,” makes a similar claim of food-literacy. “I’m was [sic] raised in California so I am a tough critic when it comes to finding fresh and tasty Mexican cuisine.”
Some lament Philadelphia’s dearth of authentic Mexican food when compared to California, where there is supposedly less pandering to “gringo” tastes. Kevin R. writes that “having moved from California … I find that looking for (real) Mexican food on the East Coast is usually an exercise in futility.” Yet at the highly lauded Los Gallos on Wolf St., Kevin and Steph H. found the “best tacos … since moving back from the West Coast.”
What all of these reviews share is an implicit sense that California somehow represents a reservoir of authentically Mexican flavors. Once baptized in this “pure” cuisine, reviewers are now eligible for expert status—but they are also burdened by their knowledge that Philadelphia’s cuisine is somehow less authentic. John S., a visitor from San Francisco, embodies this genre of consumer narratives:
When my Philly friend told me she was bringing me here, I was ready to be magnanimous and tell her how much I liked it while secretly wondering why people from the East Coast settle for such horrible Mexican food. When we got here, though, I was ready to eat my words—er, thoughts—and I did. First off, the place looks like something from East L.A. or San Francisco’s Mission District—not the building itself but the décor and setup. I was instantly comforted by the fact that most of the employees looked Latino or Latina, as did quite a few patrons. When the food came, I just wanted to eat until I was tired. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was familiar.
Ironically, John’s comments demonstrate a blithe unawareness of the diversity and complexity of Mexican regional cuisines. Most of California’s Mexican-inspired food is utterly distinct from Philadelphia’s Poblano cuisine. Indeed, many of the most famous “Mexican” dishes found in California were created in America, or were brought by recent immigrants from Jalisco or Michoacán. Los Angeleños may justifiably claim an expert knowledge of burritos and tacos, but until recently, they have rarely encountered Puebla’s signature dishes like pipián blanco and mole poblano. Meanwhile, very few of Philadelphia’s own Yelpers bother to mention these regional particularities—even when the names of the restaurants they are reviewing contain the words “Puebla” or “Veracruz.” This reminds us that authenticity is never an objective or static category. Rather, it is a field of meaning where people project and negotiate their own (often muddled) notions of ethnicity.
Still, there is widespread disagreement as to the boundaries of what constitutes an authenticating sign. When does unpretentious charm give way to unpleasant grime? El Maguey, at Tenth and Tasker Streets, gets downgraded for its “complete and utter lack of ambiance … it’s just overly bright, mismatched and dingy.” Another patron complains about the “rickety four mismatched wooden chairs at an equally rickety table … [it] comes off as a little dirty.” Some reviewers seem worried that they have trespassed too far into a foreign space. Writing of Los Taquitos de Puebla, Tim O. is disconcerted about the potential danger of its intensely homosocial atmosphere. Visiting “late [at] night … more than half drunk,” Tim writes, “I walk into a sea of Hispanic men. Guys practically sitting on each other’s laps. Good thing I was getting it to go.” Clearly, one person’s authentic is another’s dingy or crowded; it just depends on who is doing the interpreting. But on Yelp, how do we know which type of person we are dealing with? Are we sure that we are reading the words of a true urban cosmopolitan whose tastes we should both admire and imitate? Really, does anyone know who anybody is on Yelp?
The answer, in a word, is no—we don’t. But isn’t that precisely the point? Yelp’s anonymity allows consumers to fashion their own self-presentations. As noted above, it frees consumers to create an imagined self by scripting a personal archive of reviews. Those multiple overlapping narratives help Yelpers to make claims of belonging in, and mastery of, the cosmopolitan city.
Unfortunately, only a certain cross-section of urbanites possess the literacies and resources to join in Yelp’s performative arena. For all that is made of the fluidity of postmodern identities, we should remember that such flexibility is usually only available to those with material and educational privileges. And while Yelp itself might seem to be an egalitarian space, its putative frictionlessness conceals very real class antagonisms. Sites like Yelp, argues Rob Horning, “proceed by disguising … the existence of conflictual classes, and replacing them with individuals battling other individuals … over matters of taste.” Social media’s facelessness, Horning continues, compels us to “think of everybody as being middle class by default,” each of us “unique idiosyncratic selves with special unique talents.” Our only goal becomes “getting that specialness properly recognized. ‘Someone tell me how authentic I am, damn it!’” So much for the democratic social network.
Worse still, Yelp may undermine efforts to challenge its savage individualism. Yelp and its “fantasies of abundance,” writes Kathleen Mary Kuehn, “conceal[s] … structural inequalities by supporting the neoliberal framework that treats expressions of consumer choice as the ‘will of the people.’ Citizenship becomes individualized and defined by our consumption. As the market pervades every facet of our lives, we mistake our agency on digital networks like Yelp for political action.”
But, in closing, let us not forget the more benevolent intentions of some who come to South Philly for Mexican food. In a moment when multiculturalism has become gospel for liberal-minded Americans, perhaps the yearning to interact across ethnic boundaries may be more normative—and less selfish—than I have granted. When we ask Yelpers directly what they get out of eating ethnic cuisines, they reveal intentions that are genuinely good-hearted. Alex Kercheval, a 29-year-old member of the Yelp International Supper Club, says he “thrives on learning about different cultures through food. Everybody eats. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you can share an experience.” For those who live in Philadelphia alongside those of Mexican descent—but might not speak Spanish—eating at a taqueria can serve as an initial point of contact, a way to forge community bonds across an otherwise unbridgeable divide. Of course, we should not mistake this as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. Leaving a review on Yelp is not an act of cross-class solidarity. And it does little to improve the working conditions and wages of restaurant workers. But these experiences do play a part in transforming consumers’ consciousness, that essential first step toward social change. Yelper Wendy Smith agrees with this assessment. “The first part of understanding,” she says, “is knowing where people are coming from … and part of that is through food. Food tells a story.”
Yet due to their limited economic and social capital, immigrants remain harder to hear on Yelp. In this respect, the site remains a frustratingly narrow window into urban life; for all of its size, it is an archive riddled with silences. So the question remains: How do those not represented on the site find a venue to challenge, refigure and resist the power of Yelpers’ consumer narratives? If urban cosmopolitans hope to move past mere multiculturalism toward inclusion and equality, they might begin by Yelping less and listening more.
Dylan Gottlieb is a doctoral student at Princeton University with a focus on urban cultural history. Reprinted from Gastronomica (Summer 2015), a quarterly journal of critical food studies published by University of California Press.