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The five-star phenonmenon

When he moved from Portland to Medford, Jon Theriault hungered not for fine food as much as reliable restaurant recommendations.

Whether effusive or dismissive, customer reviews posted on Yelp.com helped Theriault chart a course through the Rose City’s culinary landscape. The same site reduced restaurants in Southern Oregon, he says, to sketchy summaries with vague descriptions and wildly variable ratings for a single establishment.

“It was just one or two sentences,” says Theriault. “I wanted something kind of detailed and meaty.”

Fleshing out Southern Oregon’s dining scene on Yelp became something of a calling for Theriault. In the process, the 30-year-old graphic designer set a gastronomic goal that would be nearly impossible in Portland but still looks lofty in his new surroundings. He plans to try every eatery in Jackson County — all 675, give or take — and review each for Yelp.

“Medford seemed a little more tangible,” says Theriault, whose Yelp identity is “Jon T.”

Visiting 53 local restaurants — from Black Bear Diner to Wild River Brewing and Pizza — and rehashing each experience on Yelp took Theriault almost two years. Once he logged 30 reviews on the site, Theriault applied for and attained status in the Yelp Elite Squad, users who consistently post good-quality reviews and engage in other ways on the site. Restaurants represent one of the more popular Yelp review categories, but the site ranks just about everything, from manicurists to mechanics.

Although Yelp has few review requirements, beyond using its five-star rating system, Theriault applies “extremely obsessive” standards to his own. After patronizing the restaurant at least twice, Theriault organizes his impressions of the food, beverages, atmosphere, service and price under headings while incorporating his own quirky metaphors, literary and pop-culture references and well-warranted criticism with a bit of nitpicking.

“Now I’m going into almost these stories,” says Theriault. “You can just kind of live through them.”

Theriault’s reviews number among more than 90 million posted to Yelp, which also reports 162 million unique monthly users. Launched in San Francisco in 2004, Yelp has come to signify online review sites’ effect on consumer culture and the digital vehicle that drives private citizens to take their opinions public.

“I never realized how social media is running the world,” says Nora LaBrocca, whose Downtown Market Co. ranks among Medford’s best restaurants on Yelp.

“It’s huge for us.”

About a quarter to a third of Downtown Market Co.’s non-regular customers find the East Main Street restaurant on Yelp, TripAdvisor.com or another online review site, says LaBrocca, who never has purchased advertising. Some diners are traveling Interstate 5, while others make the trip from Ashland, she says.

“If you don’t know about us,” says LaBrocca, “you would never pull off the freeway.”

Serving as a destination for foodies always was in the business plan for Buttercloud Bakery & Cafe, says co-owner Gibson Holub. Consumer-review and social-media sites have made Buttercloud’s spot on the map even more prominent, he says.

“That’s what the map is nowadays — it’s your phone,” he says. “Once you get on the Yelp radar, if you offer something somewhat popular, it just snowballs.”

Nearly 300 Yelp reviews — among the highest for Medford restaurants — have elevated Buttercloud beyond the point where individual opinions carry much weight, says Holub. A large number of reviews and an overall rating of more than four stars are the most telling indicators, he says.

“I don’t need to read anyone’s subjective reviews, really,” says Holub. “The numbers will eventually weed out any sort of weirdness.”

Yet the credibility of reviews and the anonymity of many reviewers are frequent fodder for Yelp critics. The site encourages reviewers to list their first names and last initials, according to a story by the Virginian-Pilot, and also employs several tactics for weeding out questionable reviews — both positive and negative.

“Scathing” comments and “prickly” personalities, say Holub and LaBrocca, are evident in their online reviews, as well as other highly rated restaurants on Yelp. Local restaurateurs’ responses to poor reviews range from routinely replying on the site to religiously avoiding it.

“Yelp didn’t invent customer criticism,” says Adam Ward, co-owner of Bambu in Medford.

There’s still no online forum for lodging complaints, says Ward, that should trump the actual restaurant, where staff can correct a mistake or at least improve another aspect of the meal.

“We will offer you a glass of wine or a gift card,” he says. “Give us a chance to redo it.”

A redo on Yelp reviews occasionally is justified, says Theriault. Several of his are “updated” after obtaining more information from restaurant owners and managers. Keeping his expectations realistic, Theriault says he resists the urge to pan run-of-the-mill meals to paint the bigger picture of Southern Oregon’s food scene.

“Take into account all aspects of a location,” he says. “We go to Disneyland for the entertainment. We don’t always go for the food.”

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Bambu owner Adam Ward prepares a flaming dish in the kitchen. Bambu was named best restaurant by the owners of Yelp's Top 10 restaurants in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch