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Before the web was in widespread use, food lovers would wait patiently for the New York Times restaurant reviews to come out for the hottest new spot in SoHo, or for hometown papers to write up the little Korean joint that just opened down the street. We relied heavily on that system of stars, dollar signs and bells indicating noise level to make a decision on where we’d be eating on Saturday night and which places we should avoid like the plague.

This system worked the same way for decades, and quite effectively because restaurant reviewers patronized the businesses under the guise of “regular people” and thus experienced the same good and bad things as the rest of us. But with the rise of the interactive web, the inverse has happened: Regular people have become the reviewers. Not only are we relying on, say, The New York Times’ Frank Bruni for his opinions. Now we can rely on people we trust in real life — our friends and neighbors — and, more often than not, anonymous strangers.

After years of struggling with cumbersome sites like Citysearch to find candid, real-people restaurant reviews, Internet users are beginning to find satisfaction through a mix of services and online communities built around a shared passion: good food. As a serious l eater myself, I can say that never before has it been easier to find a good meal as it is now, thanks to a few sites I use religiously.

Chowhound: Birthplace of the Amateur Reviewer

Homegrown restaurant reviewing was born on message boards in the mid-‘90s, and the board that gave birth to this on a large scale was Chowhound. Meant to be a grassroots alternative to traditional media, Chowhound began as a rather rugged-looking message board where users could share thoughts on the best places to get horchata in the Bronx or debate the differences between grits and polenta.

The unassuming neighborhood-like feel of the site was presumably a key to its success. Less a grouping of food snobs, Chowhound was more about talking “good eats” than high-brow restaurant experiences. As the site grew, Chowhound’s servers groaned under heavy traffic, and users grew weary of its outdated technology. In 2006 the founders sold it to CNET, who promised to fix the tech issues without destroying the community.

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Old look of Chowhound boards

I didn’t use Chowhound much prior to its acquisition by CNET precisely because of the patience required to use it, so I can’t vouch for whether or not there has been much of a change in the community. But as someone who relies on Chowhound to get tips about restaurants, I can tell you that the community of users provides me with great information about anything food-related, quickly. Before a recent trip to Las Vegas, I asked local Chowhounds what they recommend I order at the famed Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam. Because I was only going to visit the restaurant once, I wanted to make sure I got the most out of my meal there. After only a couple of days, I received over 20 responses, and the information they provided me greatly improved my dining experience.

One of the appeals of Chowhound is that it feels just as good to give advice as to receive it. I frequently steer visitors to San Francisco away from tourist traps and toward the best deals and best dining in the city. When a fellow Chowhound comes back from their trip and posts a “thank you” for leading them to one of the best meals they’ve ever had, it’s quite rewarding. It’s proof that the best social networks are built around a passion, and can grow organically. Kind of like food.

Yelp: Honest Reviews from Neighbors & Friends

While local directory service Yelp isn’t exclusively a restaurant ratings site, its legions of hungry users have made the site’s restaurant category one of the most robust and entertaining destinations for food lovers. The users (called “Yelpers”) tend to be on the younger side, and fill their reviews with witty — and sometimes sarcastic — comments. Without really trying, Yelp has created a Zagat Guide for the young, urban and cool. A typical review on the site might contain comments like “Stop putting crack in the samosas!” or include a rambling comedic dialogue designed more for the entertainment value than for actually extracting an accurate perception of a restaurant.

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Yelp’s restaurant pages are not for someone looking to make a quick decision. Yelp users are passionate about their reviews, which can be, as often as not, lengthy diatribes. Some restaurants have pages and pages of opinions and, happily, the powers that be at Yelp aren’t making any attempt to stifle them. Childish arguments erupt between the reviewers, only to be lightened by the appearance of some jokester who will take the conversation in an entirely different direction.

Not only do Yelp users review restaurants, but roving food vendors as well. In the San Francisco restaurant category, The Bacon Dog Cart: and The Tamale Lady are a couple examples of street vendors with a cult online following.

Serious Eats: Food Media 2.0

I used to get my restaurant recommendations from magazines, but lately I’ve been letting my subscriptions to Bon Appetit and Gourmet lapse. Not because I’m one of those “print pubs are bad” people, but because the amount of advertising in those magazines makes it extremely hard to figure out what’s content and what’s marketing. And to be perfectly honest, these magazines make me feel, um, poor. I don’t have black truffles lying around the kitchen for a quick weeknight dinner and I’m not interested in the best meal in Saint Tropez. I need a food lover’s magazine that understands my lifestyle, and I’ve found it online in New York-based Serious Eats.

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Founded by author Ed Levine, Serious Eats represents the next generaion of food media, combining longtime food bloggers with a lively community of reader/contributors. It has everything a mainstream site like Conde Nast-owned Epicurious.com does — from restaurant reviews to cooking advice — but with a hipper edge. The blogs on the site make up the bulk of the content. There’s one about food-related topics in general, one that covers recipes, and another about eating out. Those are all of the topics I’d look for in a good food magazine.

Beyond providing opinions on restaurants and recipe ideas, Serious Eats covers food personalities, gossip and integrates video and other media to offer food lovers a well-rounded experience. And the message boards — home to many a restaurant review — are quite lively as well. The Serious Eats crowd is more hipster than snooty, and help each other answer questions such as what do with an abundance of fresh corn or where to find the best dumplings in New York City. And for the truly obsessed, Serious Eats has integrated existing niche blogs with content centered solely around hamburgers and pizza.

Amateur Opinions: For Better or Worse?

In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, the founders of Yelp said that the best reviews come from peers. Without commercial interests or personal agendas mucking up the reviews, user-generated opinions are more sincere, right? That’s not always true. Who’s to say that the person writing the bad review about your favorite pizzeria isn’t the friend of a rival? As in every social network, opinions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

Perhaps the question isn’t whether old media can compete with new media in the realm of restaurant reviews. One of the great things about the Internet is the ability to nanopublish for smaller groups, and have different needs satisfied by different media. While I’d openly admit to reading the Times’ reviews, I lurk on Yelp because it provides me with something entirely different. As one Yelper, Drue C., puts it on her review of the Bacon Dog Cart: “I have two sides. The one who loves dive bars, taquerias, camping and a good bargain. Then there is the part of me that likes lounges, fancy restaurants with good food, five-star hotels and Saks Fifth Avenue.”

One piece of evidence that the art of professional restaurant reviewing is not dead came when L.A. Weekly’s Jonathan Gold won the first-ever Pulitzer prize for food criticism in April. And before you go thinking that Gold is just another food snob, it appears he’s also comfortable reviewing a roadside taco truck with gusto. His reviews might not be as hilarious as those found on Yelp, but I trust his opinion just slightly more than that of the unruly collective. Is it the Pulitzer or is it that deep down, as much as I do rely on regular people, the image of the critic as the authority remains?

What do you think? Are average folks’ opinions as important to you as what restaurant critics say? What could restaurant critics and traditional media learn from these sites? What sites do you rely on for restaurant reviews? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.