Are restaurants and bloggers forming a sinister (if tacit) alliance in order to fool the dining public at large? Kinda, suggests the Wall Street Journal in a story on the new “review” paradigm created by sites such as Yelp and Chowhound.

Restaurants, says the Journal, are effectively buying positive coverage by handing out free meals that are not disclosed by the bloggers. The story digs up a representative handful of examples of online commentators quietly taking free food and raving about it, which makes for good, if not exactly shocking, reading.

Another, more novel, angle of the story is an exploration of restaurants actually (or by proxy) posting comments about themselves in the guise of diners. While not surprising (good review = customers = $$$) the WSJ piece digs down a layer further and finds a different kind of manipulation that is sometimes at work in a positive post.

Scott Rodrick, president of Rodrick Management Group, which owns and operates 20 restaurants on the East and West Coast, says that a couple of months ago he noticed several Yelp postings about how friendly the bar staff is at one of his restaurants. That struck him as suspicious: Only a short while before, he’d reprimanded the bartending team for being aloof to customers. ‘I’m sure it’s a case where they told their friends that ‘my boss sat me down,’ ’ Mr. Rodrick says.

Free food, it should be said, does taste different. When the hella pricey Fogo de Chao chain opened in Minneapolis, they comped me a meal so I’d blog it on a local pulse-of-the-city group blog. The food was good and my review said as much, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would have been so charmed had I personally been paying the bigass check.

For what it’s worth: I disclosed the free eats.

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