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Canadian Journalists Keep Publishing OpenTable’s Problematic Best Restaurant Lists

CTV, Huffington Post, and the Gazette are the latest outlets to publish free advertising for the restaurant reservation system

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You may have seen the news splayed across multiple local publications earlier this week: Montreal has 12 of the best restaurants in Canada, and Quebec as a whole has 15, according to restaurant booking site OpenTable, which aggregated a bunch of reviews. Not a bad showing for our culinary-minded home, eh?

But there’s one problem — these lists are highly skewed, and exclude the vast majority of Montreal restaurants (to say nothing of the number excluded elsewhere in Canada). Only restaurants that use OpenTable are even eligible for these lists, and this is not something that the outlets publishing them seem to highlight clearly at all.

In Montreal, that means a large number of reputable restaurants aren’t included, such as (deep breath): Au Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef (and all its sister restaurants), Montréal Plaza, Lawrence, Nora Gray, Maison Publique, Bouillon Bilk, Le Mousso, Ferreira Café, and Monarque. Those restaurants use other platforms for reservations, such as Bookenda and Resy — which happen to be a lot cheaper than OpenTable, which charges restaurants around $1 per person on every reservation made (Bookenda has been reported as charging a fraction of that, while Resy has a subscription fee with no per-table charge).

Then there are popular spots that just don’t take reservations, from Arthurs to Ma Poule Mouillée — they’re excluded too.

Despite these very major omissions, when OpenTable dropped its list of “best” restaurants in Canada this week, CTV Montreal, the Gazette, and Huffington Post Quebec all regurgitated substantial parts of the press release onto their websites, although they at least cited OpenTable in their headlines. CTV initially billed it as “a list of the Top 100 places to eat in Canada”, and amended it after the list’s shortcomings were pointed out on Twitter. While the Gazette did note that a lot of restaurants were excluded, its article apparently seeks to validate the OpenTable list by noting that numerous restaurants on it had received good reviews from its critics.

The same thing played out elsewhere in Canada, as outlets like the Calgary Herald, CTV Calgary, Global News, and CTV Vancouver all picked up the OpenTable list, and most of them highlighted other talking points from OpenTable’s press release, such as the odd fact that customers were more interested in dishes featuring “cauliflower crust” in 2019.

And this is a regular occurrence: OpenTable puts out numerous best-of lists each year, ranging from the best Italian restaurants to the most scenic restaurants, and mainstream news outlets fairly regularly pick them up.

Such lists are more or less free advertising for OpenTable and its clients — while OpenTable is a relatively expensive platform for restaurants, restaurants might justify that expense figuring that OpenTable might promote them in these fairly regular lists (they’ve published nine this year alone, just for Canada). And OpenTable isn’t really to blame here — they’re just pushing out press releases and hoping they’ll get picked up, much like many other companies do in order to promote themselves. (Yelp, for example, publishes similar lists, but at least that platform allows any and all restaurants on it, not just paying ones.)

Instead, the problem is ultimately journalists repackaging press releases. While news sources do typically cite OpenTable as the source of the information, the articles linked above lean more towards being rewritten press releases, and do not flag the fact that large numbers of Canadian restaurants weren’t even considered for the lists they’re publishing.

In the case of Montreal, some very good restaurants do make it onto the list (Damas, Le Club Chasse et Pêche), alongside some unexpected outliers. A reader with more extensive knowledge of the restaurant world would likely know that restaurants like Jellyfish or the little-known Chef’s Table are unlikely to crop up on a national best-of list, and might find the list strange. But general news sources like the Gazette and CTV should not be assuming that their readers have this kind of knowledge, and there’s likely no shortage of readers who take the OpenTable lists at face value and who truly think these are the best restaurants.

Overall, what’s the good in writing an article that says, “Here are the 100 best restaurants in the country, but the majority of restaurants weren’t actually considered”? When that’s the implicit headline, journalists might realize that they’d be better off just clicking “delete” on that press release.