Restaurants: Dining Room Confidential

Bathroom’s a mess? Waiter forgot half the specials? These days, restaurant missteps show up online immediately, which is why Stephen Starr and others are using undercover diners to spy on their own places

Part of that success is based on blending in. Kravitz is white, tall and thin. He shaves his head and wears dark jeans with polo shirts. He rides a scooter and lives in Northern Liberties. He just turned 40 and has two kids. He spends his days at La Colombe, editing his freelancers’ reports or composing his own. Kravitz uses freelancers so he doesn’t become a regular anywhere, and so he doesn’t spend every night of his life in a restaurant.

Starr, who uses a national company in conjunction with i-SPY, trusts Kravitz for his local perspective. “His palate is similar to that of my customer. He has the same mind-set as my customer,” says the restaurateur. “Any owner who doesn’t [use a service] is crazy.”

Different clients tend to value Kravitz for slightly different things. The Rittenhouse Hotel relies on his opinions on service. (“I don’t give a whole lot of credence to his comments on food,” assistant GM Keith Wagner says. “The quality of the food is pretty obvious by guest feedback.”) Tria uses him to critique employees. (“He catches people doing more right than wrong,” explains owner Jon Myerow.) Kravitz only shops for Garces when one of his restaurants opens, to iron out any kinks before the critics roll in.

RESTAURANTS USED TO print their logos on matchbooks, in hopes that a cigarette break would turn into a recommendation. Smoking laws may have changed, but word of mouth is still a vital part of a restaurant’s business. And now the Internet has made everyone a critic. Food bloggers don’t just have their own sites and worshipers. The number of people who comment online about food in this town is staggering, and it’s viral: Bloggers report on fellow bloggers’ findings and spread the word to whole new audiences. Recently opened burger bar P.Y.T. in Northern Liberties even offered free burgers to bloggers to get them in the door. On forums like eGullet, user reviews and photos of dishes can easily be 30 postings deep. Bibou, a French restaurant in South Philly that opened this summer, had a 400-word review (complete with a link to a photo gallery) written about it the day after it opened, by someone who did it just for fun. And it’s more than blogs. Sites like Citysearch and Yelp employ user ratings to calculate rankings. When people search for, say, an Italian restaurant on Yelp, the highest rated restaurant comes up first, screaming, “Eat here! People like this place!”

There’s also more local competition than ever. Served an over-salted New York strip at a steakhouse? Don’t worry; there are seven others between Rittenhouse Square and Broad Street to choose from next time a beef craving strikes. The stakes are simply too high for restaurateurs not to do everything in their power to control diners’ experiences, so they won’t blab bad things to the world.