Midnight Sun Wesley Case covers the city's after-hours scene

This Baltimore bar has terrible Yelp reviews — and wants it that way

From the putting green turf on the wall to the golf ball logo, One Star Country Club in Federal Hill makes its concept obvious.

But that’s not the entire story around this recent rebrand, which was the Tex-Mex spot No Way Jose for years. At the bottom of the new menu is a five-paragraph section — titled “Why One Star?” — that reads in part, “The warmth of this industry has been compromised by faceless online criticism.”

It’s a bold declaration in an age when many customers won’t hesitate to critique an establishment on Facebook and Yelp. One Star encourages patrons to leave negative reviews — which are rewarded and celebrated for the whole bar to see.

General manager Don Messinese said this rejection of online-review culture is an attempt to return to a simpler time, when customers expressed issues and opinions directly to staff — not on the internet. It’s working so far, he said.

“We’re getting more of the human interaction,” Messinese said. “It’s like, let us help solve a problem before you decide you want to throw it out in the world.”

One Star’s attitude stands out in Baltimore, but an “anti-Yelp” movement has been growing around the country for years. Some restaurants have placed “No Yelpers” signs outside storefronts and offered discounts for negative reviews. A few years ago, “South Park” spent an entire episode skewering Yelp users, and an anti-Yelp documentary titled “Billion Dollar Bully” is in the works.

Messinese said his bar’s stance is more playful. They hand out stickers that read “Yuck Felp” and incentivize patrons to leave over-the-top one-star reviews online. Each month, management chooses their favorite review and rewards the writer with a free happy hour.

The marketing has worked as intended: The bar has a one-star rating on Yelp and Facebook.

“I didn’t get any matches on Tinder or Bumble which is totes their fault too,” reads part of the November winner’s entry, printed and posted on the bar’s wall like a shrine to tongue-in-cheek negativity. “The Bob Saget of bars. It’s fine but is it?” begins another winner.

“People are going on and writing these very entertaining one-star reviews,” Messinese said.

Darnell Holloway, director of local business outreach for Yelp, said the company has seen similar anti-review marketing strategies from restaurants over the years, and that the approach is ultimately ineffective. He said bars like One Star would be better off using Yelp as a platform to connect with customers, because “a lot of people will trust a review on Yelp before they even ask their friends now.”

“Instead of asking for reviews, whether it’s positive or negative, just focus on providing good service,” Holloway said.

One Star is having fun with the concept, but Messinese said he’s still checking his online reviews for legitimate concerns. Some might consider the One Star branding as a way of shielding itself from public criticism, but Messinese said he’s just looking for more empathy.

“I’m never downplaying anyone’s bad experience at a restaurant because it happens,” he said. “But it’s understanding the fact that there is human error, and a lot of those issues can be handled in-house. Give me a chance to explain that something happened.”

Brian McComas, who owns Ryleigh’s Oyster and Crossbar der Biergarten down the street from One Star, said he and his team regularly read online reviews and respond to users who have had negative experiences. Online reviews come with the territory of running a restaurant these days, he said, but McComas said some can feel malicious and overblown.

“You don’t always need to be acting as if you are a restaurant critic,” McComas said. “We do care about your opinion, but you could at least reach out directly to the stores. You don’t need to go blast” us.

Customers like Duane Rigby understand this. The Washington Hill resident sat at One Star’s bar recently, sipping a Terrapin India Pale Ale before heading to dinner. He was more interested in the second floor’s mini-golf holes than in the bar’s attitude toward Yelp, but said he believes restaurants deserve second chances after missing the mark.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Rigby said. “It’s kind of cowardly not to tell the staff what happened while you were there, and then go home [and write a negative review]. Most establishments want to make it right. Loyalty is what keeps them open.”

But the backlash against online reviews doesn’t register with everyone. Seated next to Rigby was Beth Whitmer, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, who said she wasn’t aware of the rebrand’s meaning.

“Oh, see, I didn’t even know,” Whitmer said after hearing an explanation. “I wouldn’t have even thought of that as being a Yelp review” reference.

Messinese and McComas recognize online reviews aren’t going anywhere soon. They just hope writers realize the power they yield, and proceed responsibly.

“This business is tough, and you’re only as good as your last meal, as they say,” McComas said. “It’s rather helpful to not put somebody on blast and try to take them apart rather than try to help them do better and stay open.”

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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