I always encouraged students to pursue bold ideas in their beat neighborhoods, especially if they were parlayed from local, regional or national news. What I found particularly impressive, however, were instances when a student beat the establishment news media to the proverbial punch. This student, for example, pitched me a story idea focused on the merits of Yelp reviews of restaurants about six months before the San Francisco Chronicle published one of their own. Suffice to say that this student had long finished reporting, interviewing and writing – gosh, my course ended!—before the Chronicle piece ran. Quick! Someone hire this young man!
By Julian Moncaleano
San Francisco has converted itself into a city with many ethnic backgrounds and delicious cultural foods. College students and other young adults can choose from all the local ethnic restaurants scattered throughout the neighborhoods.
From Korean, Italian, El Salvadorian and Mexican food, most of the local restaurants are culture-based establishments. Even AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, has become one of the most famous ballparks in the country for its variety of dishes to snack on during baseball games.
Chinatown is an established landing spot for tourists and Bay Area residents. One could say this is the site for the most authentic Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area. There is one thing, however, that many people have wondered about the food in Chinatown: Is it safe?
If you have visited Chinatown in recent years, the buildings seem to look more worn and rundown every time you visit. Many of the restaurants have scored low and have even failed the city of San Francisco’s health inspections.
Meanwhile, apps such as Yelp give you the gist of a restaurant’s success and provide reviews on the quality of the food and its customer service. Yelp has become one of the most downloaded review apps for Android and Apple users. People who travel and want to eat the best-quality foods on their trip will most likely look on the internet for restaurant recommendations. San Francisco is one of the 17 districts across the United States that requires Yelp reviews to include the city’s inspection rating.
When compared with city health inspection scores, Yelp’s reviews are almost identical. One thing Yelp doesn’t show you, however, is how clean the restaurant appears to be.
Good Mongkok Bakery, on the corner of Jackson and Stockton streets, is a local favorite across all of Chinatown. On Yelp, this bakery has four stars and 1,857 reviews.
The San Francisco Department of Public Health inspected Good Mongkok Bakery in November 2017 and gave it a score of 96. But earlier that year, it scored a 78 and was found to have committed eight violations. Five violations were low-risk; the remaining three were moderate risk. The management of this restaurant did not want their reputation tainted and made it a priority to address all of the violations. By November, the only violation was a low risk: an inadequate and inaccessible, hand-washing facility.
Not all restaurants make the proper adjustments. Chinatown Restaurant is located on Washington Street. Yelp has Chinatown Restaurant listed with one-and-a-half stars and 535 reviews.
In its most recent inspection, Chinatown Restaurant scored only 70 and was written up for a total of five violations. Four violations were high risk including: vermin infestation, unclean, unsanitary, food contact surface, and unclean or degraded floors, walls or ceilings.
Another restaurant is Maggie’s Café which is located on Grant Avenue and Washington Street. Maggie’s has scored higher than 90 on its last three inspections and has a symbol of excellence, according to the Department of Public Health.
On Yelp, however, it has barely a two-star rating and only 86 reviews, but not because of poor sanitation, hygiene or related conditions. The reviews for Maggie’s say little about the quality of the food but instead call the place a tourist trap with overpriced items and requires customers pay with cash.
It’s no surprise, either, that many college students rely on Yelp. About 90 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds in this country in 2016 had smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center.
University of San Francisco student Andrew Lu enjoys going to Chinatown whenever he’s in the mood for an Asian dish. “When I go out for lunch or go out with friends I definitely use Yelp,” Lu said, “because it always gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get.”
Lu shared his opinion on Chinatown’s food. “For Chinatown, especially, I feel like that’s when Yelp is clutch. My friends and I don’t really trust most of these restaurants—it’s just the appearance of the restaurant that gives off these questionable vibes.”
Yelp includes photos of how the business looks and is starting to change the way food critics and health inspectors go about their grading.
When it comes to the dining industry, building appearance is the most important factor. People make conclusions based on outside appearances of restaurants and tend to stay away from those that are poorly maintained.
But the interior matters, too.
Unitek College nursing student Milan Patel said, “You do have to question the food in Chinatown just because of how the kitchen and (dining room) furniture appear. If I can’t decide whether or not I want to sit in the chairs, then I don’t think I would want to eat at that place.”
A December 2015 Washington Post article ranked the best food cities in America and placed San Francisco second behind Portland.
So in a city that is known for having great quality food and a high volume of tourists, you would expect most restaurants to hold themselves to a higher standard. San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the largest tourist draws in the city and most of these restaurants would benefit if they just made minor building improvements. Restaurants are held to a higher standard than most businesses because they serve food to the public.
NBC News Bay Area reported in early 2017 that San Francisco had started a new program that can help health inspectors with their decisions. The program allows low-scoring restaurants to buy a “do-over inspection” giving them another chance at earning a higher score. This is a great solution for failing restaurants to improve and to fix or even prevent costly mistakes that will come out of their bottom line.
It’s okay to feel skeptical about a place that you’re going to for the first time. It’s like getting a haircut from a new barber or stylist; you just don’t know what to expect.
Tourists and locals will continue to visit restaurants in Chinatown and elsewhere in the city. Having the Yelp app installed in their phone can allow them to walk into a restaurant with confidence.