Yelp may be unsettling professional food critics and making life difficult for restaurateurs, but it's a terrifically handy tool for tracking down new restaurants. I don't much care whether anonymous eaters think highly of the soondubu at a new tofu joint in Federal Way, but I'm deeply grateful to them for spotlighting a restaurant that might otherwise go unnoticed from my perch in downtown Seattle.
That's pretty much the only way I use Yelp, although I'll sometimes look up a restaurant after I've written about it. I don't like to pollute my perspective with other eaters' opinions prior to visiting a restaurant (although it's not uncommon for my review companions to want to tell me about their preparatory online research), but it's always interesting to learn whether other customers had experiences similar to mine.
Usually, Yelp and I reach the same general conclusions (maybe I should be unsettled.) Yelp users gave four stars to Terra Plata, LloydMartin and Katsu Burger, all of which I've reviewed very favorably in recent months. Ma'Ono - where I loved the fried chicken, but wasn't sold on other entrees -- scored 3.5 stars.
But The Fat Hen, the subject of this week's review, is nearly off the Yelp charts. After being reviewed an impressive 45 times, it sports a rare 4.5 rating. Yelp users gave the same score to Blind Pig Bistro, one of the best restaurants I've had the opportunity to review.
I enjoyed my meals at The Fat Hen, but it's not the equal of Blind Pig. I know it's futile to compare apples to oranges and hens to pigs, but it's fair to gauge how well two different restaurants succeed at what they're trying to do. Judging from my overcooked eggs and burnt brioche at The Fat Hen, I'd give Blind Pig the clear edge.
So what accounts for The Fat Hen's exceedingly high score? I'd wager it's the décor.
The Fat Hen is precious. Its attractive clean-farmhouse look is enhanced by picture windows through which it seems there's always sunlight streaming. Of the 45 Yelp reviews, only 10 failed to mention the room's design - and two of those writers admitted they didn't stick around to eat. Yelpers describe the space as "homey", "quaint", "cute", "cozy" and "well-lit." That last phrase pops up in more than 10 percent of the reviews.
Good light is no trifling matter. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that natural light can make people feel good, which is one of the perks we're seeking when we venture out to eat. According to a study published in the Academy of Marketing Science Journal, restaurant patrons tend to underestimate how long they've been waiting for a table or their food when the lighting isn't too harsh.
There's a limit to what restaurants can accomplish with good lighting, of course. Bad food doesn't taste any better just because it's easy to see, and a study shows customers don't spend any more money in dining rooms bathed in full-spectrum light. But when service is warm and the food's pretty good, a right-placed window can help make patrons very happy, which just might be worth 4.5 stars.