In theory, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Zomato, and other review-driven sites work because they assume that you're being honest about your experience. If dropping a Benjamin on a restaurant's tasting menu was worth every single dollar, you'll say so. Conversely, if your chicken was slimy, your filet was overcooked, or you felt like you needed a set of semaphore flags to get a server's attention, you'll explain that too. (Yes, some reviews on both sides of the star-spectrum can be sketchy, but let's assume that most of them are sincere.)
Regardless, one restaurant in Kent, England, seems surprised by the concept of negative reviews, and has filed a lawsuit over what it claims is an unfair assessment. Sarah Gardner had a less than stellar experience at the High Rocks restaurant, and she wrote about it online, criticizing both the food and the staff. "[The staff] have an arrogance that should not exist in a service industry, particularly the management," she wrote. "Food is mediocre at best, they seem to survive by being one of the few venues to do eighteenth [birthday] parties locally."
After finishing the last sentence of her one-star review, she presumably logged off and forgot about it—at least until an envelope from an attorney's office arrived. According to the Mirror, in the 11-page letter, Cohen Davis Solicitors explained that Gardner's review was "defamatory and therefore unlawful" and that their client would be seeking damages from Gardner for "tens of thousands of pounds" in lost business. It also threatened her with potential jail time if she failed to "comply" with the order. "I'm a nervous wreck," she told the paper. "I left an honest review."
But the restaurant's manager, Giuseppe Cappellazzi, told the Daily Mail that Gardner is a liar and that she didn't visit the restaurant on the day that she posted the review. (Gardner doesn't deny that, but she said she has been a frequent visitor to the restaurant and has photographs and bank statements to prove it.)
"We are the bullied party here," Capellazzi told the Mail. "We have never, ever disagreed with someone placing a review. What we object to is a fabrication and a lie."
The majority of the reviews for High Rocks are positive, but the restaurant has tried this tactic before. In February, a mom took to Facebook to complain about her experience. She described her spaghetti as "slop"—but Cappellazzi responded that he'd watched the CCTV footage of her lunchtime visit and decided that she looked like she enjoyed it. "You appear to tuck into it and appear happy and smiling when you go to the bar to pay," he wrote, which isn't creepy at all.
Another man told the Mail that he'd written a negative review of the restaurant but, after being contacted and threatened by its attorneys, he felt he had no choice but to remove it. (Gardner has also removed her TripAdvisor review).
So can a restaurant sue you for leaving a bad review? They sure can—but you also have the right to post a bad review, provided that it's a truthful one. Last December, Congress passed the Consumer Review Freedom Act, which allows customers to post truthful, negative reviews, even if the business has a "gag clause" to prevent or punish patrons who criticize them. (But even that doesn't prevent a business from suing you if you say you had a shitty plate of spaghetti.)
"TripAdvisor strongly believes in the right to write," Brad Young, assistant General Counsel at TripAdvisor told NBC News at the time. "Some companies, rather than trying to provide great service, have instead tried to silence their critics in an effort to improve their online reputations and that's something that goes against everything we stand for."
Some companies definitely do that, Brad. Unfortunately, this U.S. law isn't going to help Gardner, who may find herself in a costly legal battle. According to WalesOnline, Gardner may have to prove her statements in court, although—holy cow—how do you prove something subjective like a rude attitude or what constitutes mediocre food?
Good luck, everyone who chooses to eat at High Rocks. And better luck to anyone who decides to leave them a less-than-perfect review.
MUNCHIES has reached out to High Rocks for comment.