Photo/Illutration A search through the Tabelog site shows restaurants in the area. (Satoru Eguchi)

Asked how he could tell whether a restaurant was good or bad before eating there, Japanese writer Shotaro Ikenami (1923-1990), who was known as a food connoisseur, said, “Speaking of restaurants, no matter what kind, you can tell (their quality) mostly when you see the storefront appearance.”

The episode is included in his book “Otoko no saho” (Men’s manners).

Ikenami said he could not put into words specifically how he distinguished between good and bad restaurants, however. This comment seems to reflect insight Ikenami gained by visiting numerous restaurants, both good and bad, over the years.

I wonder what he would think if he were alive today and saw restaurant review sites.

Tabelog and other peer-to-peer restaurant review sites have grown by playing on consumers’ aversion to spending money on unsatisfactory experiences. The restaurant rating system, based on reviews by anonymous consumers, has become a basic tool for people to decide where to eat.

That is why the Tokyo District Court’s recent ruling on a damages lawsuit filed against the operator of the Tabelog site was surprising.

A Korean barbecue chain sued Inc., claiming its ratings were unfairly lowered on the grounds that it is a chain restaurant establishment. The court ordered the site operator to pay nearly 40 million yen ($296,398) in damages to the plaintiff.

The court recognized that the changed algorithm for calculating ratings at the Tabelog website caused a drop in sales at the barbecue chain's outlets.

If the ratings are determined by an opaque system, it is meaningless to pay attention to small differences in ratings.

These sites offer social and visible word of mouth, so to speak, but their systems and operations may not be quite visible to the public.

While there are such review sites for a wide range of products and services, including hotels, household electrical appliances and movies, fake and staged reviews are uncovered from time to time.

I feel uncertain about emulating Ikenami and judging restaurants by their storefront appearances alone.

When I look for good restaurants while on business trips, I usually ask hotel receptionists for recommendations. In this social media era, however, hotel receptionists may be relying on restaurant review sites when they answer.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.