Our nation, every wondrously putrid acre of it was built on democracy. The premise that all educated land-owning white males had the right to a say in how their nation would be governed. What did they come up with? An elaborate republican system that would become increasingly centralized and imperialistic with time while spawning massive spiraling bureaucracies. It's in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, give it a read.
What they didn't envision was a world where any old douche bag with a computer could make declarative assertions about the quality of restaurants.
This started with Zagat's (it probably started with some cocksucker in ancient Rome who collected opinions on stone tablets, but the Masons make sure no record exists). What was originally one sexually frustrated couple's attempts to correlate their friends' restaurant reviews is now a guidebook of international authority.
What people forget is despite this institutionalization, Zagat is still just a bunch on uninformed persons' opinions based on no credentials or rubric. It's meaningless folks! No more important than your opinion or mine.
This is why citysearch, Yelp!, et al are dangerous. They lend institutional credibility to anybody's opinion. There is not strength in numbers, more does not necessarily equal better. Besides the fact that self-righteous assholes are more likely to post their criticisms than their praises, users of these sites are also going to gradually develop similarly focused opinions. It's groupthink. It happens. Take a look at Yelp! and pay close attention to what people criticize and how they do it. The vast majority of reviewers are going to overemphasize service complaints and are going to be uncritical in their food reviews--using terminology as to what "works" and does not "work" instead of approaching the food critically.
Here comes the interjection--aren't you a self-righteous asshole posting opinions on the internet?
I most certainly am.
What I don't have behind me is a machine that lends credibility to what I write beyond the credibility that my own opinion brings. I'm one man with one opinion. I try to be informative, critical, helpful, and eminently subjective but all that I write is just that.
And this is why individual food critics are better than democratic shouting matches on websites. They have the authority of one man or woman and that one man or woman's palate and taste.
Despite his pretendings of objectivity, Michael Bauer of the SF Chronicle has very particular tastes that are easily read. You can learn whether a restaurant might interest you not based on the end 1-4 star assessment, but from the content of the review. Maverick, a restaurant which Bauer only gave two stars I went to because it sounded like something interesting based on what he wrote about. I also know that Bauer has a thing about loud restaurants and he dinged Maverick by AT LEAST a half-star if not more because he found it oppressively loud. I don't care so much about that so I didn't factor that aspect of his review into my equation. Wood Tavern, a restaurant that I had very mixed feelings about I figured Bauer would love and sure enough, he gave it three stars not soon after I ate there.
Are there people who slavishly follow Michael Bauer's reviews? Sure. But at least they can't pretend that they're doing anything else. A Yelp!, Zagat, or citysearch user can claim that they're decision is based on that institution's rating as an opinion clearinghouse. Not to mention that Yelp! and citysearch are forprofit entities that sell services that can boost restaurants' exposure on their sites. But nevermind that.
The Michelin Guides (and most travel guides in general) are better alternatives to review websites and Zagat because they rate based on a rubric that you can either agree or disagree with. The Michelin Guide reviews restaurants and attractions based on a rubric that has been shaped by what they have come to understand that their members/users expect and appreciate. The criteria is nothing but the dubious assertion that everyone has a right to have their opinion codified into some sort of worthwhile standard (what's oft-forgotten about Wikipedia is that despite it's open-source democratic editing process, there are set criteria and there is an oversight board).
And if you want the amateur perspective (and there's nothing wrong with that--the professionals are just amateurs who get paid) read food blogs. Bloggers are going to get more in depth than a 100 word Yelp! post. You'll get a sense of that writers' tastes and critical skills. You'll know whether you have similar tastes. You'll probably learn something. Enjoy it as you would any other writer's work. If you're traveling, pick up a guide that provides information more than it levies judgments and go with an entity/agency/author whose tastes are in line with your own.
In conclusion? Read mainstream restaurant reviews. Read food blogs. Boycott Yelp!
That exclamation point is part of Yelp!'s name. I'm not trying to exclaim that you should boycott Yelp! I'm just saying it.