Some Jerks Are Destroying Cantina 1910's Yelp Page

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 3, 2015 3:17PM

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The back dining room of Cantina 1910. Photo by Anthony Todd.
I've been a fan of Cantina 1910 since before it even opened. This modern Mexican restaurant (with a rooftop garden and a preservations kitchen) is changing the Andersonville dining scene, and serving up killer arroz negro and modern cocktails. I'd hear rumors that, even though they just opened up, they were having a "Yelp Problem," but I hadn't looked into it—until now.

Mike Sula, writing in the Reader, brought the problem to the forefront Monday. In the midst of a stellar review, he pointed out that lots of yelpers had been attacking the restaurant for ... not great reasons.

So I was disappointed, but not really surprised to see folks claiming to have been eagerly awaiting the opening, and then offering the typical one-star complaints about high prices, small portions, pretentious dishes, charges for chips and salsa, the presence of headcheese, the absence of rice and beans, and goddamn it to hell where is the margarita list? These are grievances indicative of the sort of people whose assumptions about Mexican food are framed by Taco Bell on the low end and Uncle Julio's on the high.

Cantina 1910 currently has 3/5 stars on Yelp, though it's gone as low at 2.5 recently. That's pretty astoundingly bad for a new restaurant getting rave reviews from critics.

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Yelp is a complicated phenomenon that is reviled, yet closely watched, by every restauranteur. A great Yelp score can mean big bucks, and sometimes the feedback a spot gets from Yelp can be very useful. But Yelp also tends to have certain biases, especially against unique restaurants trying to do something new; they'll get 1 star simply because they aren't exactly what the diner is already used to.

While Sula pointed out the problem, he was busy doing a restaurant review, not writing an analysis of Yelp reviews. So let's go a little deeper into Cantina 1910's Yelp problem, and check out the strange, hostile, and sometimes, shall we say, ethnically-biased reviews they've been getting. Every quote below is from a one-star review. Is there really a problem here?

The Good

By "The Good," I don't mean the good reviews—there are some of those, and you can go read them for yourself (or skip Yelp and read their stellar reviews from the Redeye or the Reader). I mean genuine feedback that might be useful to a restaurant. If customers think a place is too loud, has bad service or rude managers, Yelp can be a useful tool to let the ownership know what is happening out of their sight and respond to it.

So, are there useful things here? A few.

One reviewer pointed out that Cantina 1910 has a noise problem. "Noise: This place is so loud you literally feel like you are in a stadium. You have to literally talk at the top of your lungs for the other person(s) you are with to hear you." He's not the only one to point this out, and sad to say, he's right, at least on a busy weekend night. But the restaurant is already working to address this problem—and is it really enough to make one review one star? It also looks like Cantina 1910 might have some service issues, like many new restaurants. Ok, that's fair enough, and while it's more useful to tell a manager about a service problem so they can correct it, perhaps Yelp can inform the management they need to do some additional training.

That is literally the only useful information for a diner or a restaurant in these bad reviews.

The Bad

Holy crap, the bad. This restaurant's Yelp page is a master class in diners being ridiculous, having odd expectations (that were not created by the restaurant) and complaining about things that aren't worthy of complaint.

One diner, for example, complains that his order is taken on an iPad.

"Then our server took our order on his iPad. Yes, the servers carry iPad looking things. The menu is one page, large font, triple-spaced, with like 10 items. But wireless technology is required to communicate this back to kitchen - which further confirms that whomever designed this place really is an alien from Mars."

...really? According to the owners, the reason the staff uses iPads is because installing multiple POS stations everywhere would have messed up the traffic flow of the restaurant (and been ugly). Way to punish a spot for trying to make your life nicer—and there's also no mention of why this is a problem.

There's also a fair bit of what is, frankly, nothing but ethnic bias. Many, many of the reviews basically come down to Why isn't this like our neighborhood Tex-Mex joint? or How dare you try to do something different and call it Mexican food? If you're a fan of unique food (or you happen to know that the chef here is Mexican and deeply dedicated to creating interesting food) it's just a mystery.

Let's go through the silly Mexican restaurant tropes, shall we?

1) Why aren't the chips and salsa free?

"This place is so bizarre and pretentious they apparently coat their tortilla chips (which are not free - a first for me at any Mexican restaurant) with beef fat." "I also must mention this is one of the very few Mexican restaurants you pay for chips and salsa....we did and regretted that decision."

Cantina's chips are homemade, made with beef fat (which is both authentic and delicious) and cost a few bucks. But wait just a darn second. Would you complain that your local Japanese spot doesn't give away free edamame or that your local Italian spot doesn't give away free breadsticks? Probably not. But Mexican food, for some reason, is relegated to the realm of cheap, processed junk food.

2) Where are the margaritas?

Cantina has a cocktail list designed by an Aviary vet, and the drinks include scents, smokes and rare spirits. It's a darn good list, and worth every penny. Plus, they'll make you a margarita if you want one. But apparently, mexican restaurants don't get to have anything on the menu but cheap margaritas.

"Where on earth is your Marg section? I know you are an upscale Mexican restaurant but some things are just a requirement and understanding what makes a delicious margarita and having it on the menu is a simple must." "Where's the Mexican food (or at least some entrees) and the tequila? Still in shock that the only margarita on the menu was the "Party Margarita" portioned for 4 to share! :(" "Upon a arrival you would expect to see a range of margaritas on the menu. However there is not one."

Apparently, if you can't do tequila shooters and drink frozen margaritas, it's not a Mexican restaurant. Thanks Yelp.

3) Don't you dare try anything interesting that isn't served at Taco Bell.

Most of the flack seems to come from the "Modern Mexican" part of the menu. Chef Diana Davila is a veteran of some pretty impressive kitchens, and she's definitely turning out some complicated food. Which is obvious from the menu if anyone is paying attention, but apparently it's really just a good reason to mock the spot.

"Although we kept our spirits light through laughing at their menu (including wheatgrass on their Pastor, garlic ash in their salsa, and chicken liver in their Carne Asada tacos), we will not be returning." "WTF is going on with this menu? Strangest Mexican dishes I have ever seen. They don't even have Mexican rice & beans on the menu!" "And another thing.. Headcheese? What the hell is this doing on any menu? Farm to table?"

Would these comments be so frequent if this wasn't a Mexican restaurant? Somehow I doubt it, especially since every trendy American farm-to-table spot within 10 miles has complex charcuterie (often including headcheese) on their menu.

4) The food isn't "authentic."

Somehow, every reviewer seems to be an expert in "authentic" Mexican food (which apparently is rice and beans, free chips and huge monster tacos). Plus... it's a hip new spot in the middle of a Swedish neighborhood in the Midwestern United States that claims to do modern cuisine. You aren't in Mexico anymore, Dorothy.

"There is nothing authentically Mexican about this place." "It's definitely NOT authentic Mexican, or Mexican...at all...like not even a little bit. Let's just get that out in the open now." "This place is repackaging Mexican culture for well-to-do white people."

There's nothing more frustrating than watching a restaurant get punished for being exactly what it claims to be.

The Lesson: Never try anything new. Don't include anything that could be mocked. Serve only rice and beans with free tortilla chips to scoop them up and tequila shots all around.

In all seriousness, while food writers love to mock silly Yelp reviews (reading Yelp reviews of Alinea is practically a pastime all its own), it's a shame to see this happening to a good neighborhood restaurant that's trying to do something awesome and different.

So here's my suggestion: if you've been to Cantina 1910 and liked it, drop a review. Don't fake it (Yelp-bombing, in either direction, is really, really stupid) but if you've had a good experience (or have constructive feedback), let them know? Otherwise, the bad guys win.