Credit: Courtesy of RoundTable

Though Yelp has changed (and many would say improved) the way that we find restaurants, the site has also generated lots of criticisms, whether they come from the funny guys over at South Park or the more serious people going after the review company in court.

A new restaurant recommendation site called RoundTable hopes to improve on the flaws of Yelp and similar sites. What makes this new site’s model unique is that though anyone can sign up to use it, only approved experts are allowed to post recommendations which the company believes will provide more useful feedback. Some of its first contributors come from recognizable and respected names in the food world like Bill Brasille, executive chef at Minetta Tavern, and Sayat Ozyilmaz, chef at Le Bernardin.

RoundTable opened up its platform to the public just last week and for now, the site only provides recommendations for New York, but the company hopes to expand to other major cities soon. We spoke with RoundTable’s co-founder and CEO Andrew Johnson about what’s wrong with sites like Yelp and how his site plans to make a better platform for finding restaurants.

RoundTable appears to be positioned as a better alternative to sites like Yelp. What is wrong with Yelp that needs to be improved upon?

The problem with Yelp as I see it is their philosophy that I would call “everybody’s opinion is created equal.” This is the underlying knock against Yelp; why they get portrayed negatively in the media, why people in the restaurant industry distrust them and especially why they got made fun of on South Park. It’s the idea that everybody is a food critic, everybody’s review counts just the same, and there’s seemingly no rhyme or reason to which reviews get counted or surfaced at the top of the results for a restaurant. We think that lack of quality control with reviews leaves a lot to be desired in the user experience.

How does RoundTable fix these issues?

If we want RoundTable to be known for one thing, we want people to say “I trust the opinions of the people on RoundTable.” We start from the standpoint that not everyone’s opinion is created equal. We don’t want you to see just anyone’s opinion; we want you to see recommendations from people who know what they’re talking about.

Our community is designed so that anyone can sign up, but you have to be invited to post recommendations on the site. We don’t let everyone come on and immediately start posting their thoughts. The people we’ve been inviting at the outset are chefs, sommeliers and other professionals from the restaurant industry. They’re some of the most knowledgeable people in the world of food and dining.

How do you go about not only getting these experts, but also keeping them active?

The challenge of getting experts to contribute, and keeping them actively engaged is really the same challenge that underlies building and scaling of any online community. You need momentum, as well as a strong purpose that your community believes in and can rally around. I think the reason RoundTable has resonated with the industry professionals we’ve invited is because we’re giving a voice to people who are really informed, and want to have an intelligent discourse about food and dining. They don’t necessarily feel like they can get that on Yelp.

One of Yelp’s biggest criticisms is that they’ve been accused of manipulating reviews. How does RoundTable improve on that? And by dealing with food industry insiders, isn’t there an inherent level of manipulation to your model as well? Wouldn’t insiders just push their friend’s projects?

I think the criticism of Yelp manipulating reviews stems from the fact that their algorithm for sorting reviews is a bit of a black box. It’s hard to tell why some restaurants have one-star reviews showing at the top, and others have all five-star reviews. By contrast, the way that we sort recommendations is completely transparent. We let our users vet the recommendations by voting on which of them they agree with and find most useful. You up-vote the good, down-vote the bad, and we surface up the most trusted recommendations to the top.

It’s a fair point to ask about people in the industry giving biased recommendations. It’s something that especially as we grow we’ll have to build mechanisms to discourage people from self-promoting and shamelessly plugging. That said, I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to recommend a restaurant where a friend works or where you know the chef. A lot of times that’s where insider knowledge comes from — your relationship with people at other restaurants. You know if the chef is creating incredible cuisine, you know if the staff is on point, you know if the wine list is filled with inexpensive gems that are hard to find anywhere else. My basic philosophy is just don't recommend something on RoundTable that you wouldn’t recommend to a friend.

What is your long-term goal for RoundTable?

Our long-term goal is simple. We want to build the best service for local dining recommendations in your area. If you need ideas for where to eat, we want to make it easy for you to find the perfect place to dine every time you use RoundTable.

Alright, so let’s assume I’m sold. I want to start using RoundTable. What’s the first thing I should try to really understand how the site works?

RoundTable is a Q&A-style forum where members can ask questions like, “What are the best cheap eats in the east village for under $10?” and get recommendations in response.

The first thing I’d recommend doing after signing up is spending a few minutes perusing the home page feed where we surface up the best recommendations from across the community. You can follow the people whose recommendations you enjoy, and you can also follow questions you find interesting to get updates

Admit it: You loved that South Park episode trashing Yelpers.

Well yes, the South Park episode was hilarious. I’ve gotten to know quite a few Yelp Elite reviewers in my line of work, and I think they had a pretty good sense of humor about it, and to their credit, I think Yelp did as well.