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Take this list the way you take your food - with a grain (or generous sprinkling) of salt.

We are a list-obsessed culture. Yelp recently released its list of “Best Places to Eat in Milwaukee,” a ranking of businesses using factors including total volume and ratings of reviews. It is an interesting grouping of restaurants simply from the standpoint of heterogeneity. Restaurants in all price ranges and of all culinary types are mixed together, so there is a lot of variety, plus restaurants that otherwise fly under the radar are called out (like the No. 1 Blue Star Café, a great little Somali restaurant on the East Side).  

But these aggregate lists have limits.

One of the complaints about Yelp reviews is that anyone can post them, and do so anonymously. Yelp’s Guidelines encourage reviewers to be “passionate and personal” and keep their reviews “accurate and reflective of a genuine, personal experience.” Posting rules say you can report a review that seems inappropriate (reflects a conflict of interest, uses hate speech, etc.), but Yelp won’t necessarily remove a review based on a report that it’s false or defamatory. 

There’s also the well-documented problem of “astroturfing” — when a business pays an individual to write a positive or negative review without disclosing that relationship. Yelp Guidelines, while succinct on the topic of businesses paying for positive reviews — they are “prohibited” and illegal — need the public’s help to weed out and report fake reviews. 

Furthermore, it’s natural to question why someone writes a Yelp review — for self-expression, to be a watchdog or help to other consumers, or just simply for attention. Are certain people more likely to post on Yelp and more likely to review certain restaurants?  The diversity of the list, the mix of “fine dining” and ultra casual, is clear when a sandwich/salad place called Tosa Bowl and Bun comes in at No. 9 while Bacchus is No. 20, and West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe is rated No. 4 and Ardent (which serves a high-end tasting menu) is No. 22.  In an interesting “sandwich” is high-end Sanford, at No. 25, preceded by the bar/panini place Nessun Dorma (No. 24) and followed by burger joint Oscar’s Pub & Grill (No. 26).

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By pointing this out, I don’t mean that as a cut to restaurants that make great sandwiches or burgers — or salads, poke bowls, etc. And it’s awesome that people are noticing the great work coming out of the kitchen at, say, Bavette restaurant and butcher shop (No. 7). But it’s hard to draw the conclusion from this list that it really means anything. 

My advice: scan the list and take it for what it is — “best” restaurants as selected by, well, who knows?

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