Yelpers’ Opinions of Authentic Cuisine

Who’s on Yelp, and why should we read their restaurant reviews?


| Winter 2015



Chips and Salsa

Naming the “authentic” has an important social function for Yelp reviewers. As they exhibit their cross-cultural literacy and cosmopolitanism, they signal their belonging in the multiethnic city.

Photo by Flickr/MO1229

“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.