Table service: social media setting the course of our restaurant choices

NEGATIVE restaurant reviews on websites are proving to be like red-wine stains on a white tablecloth - hard to disguise and difficult to remove.

As sites such as Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor and Yelp grow their influence, restaurateurs are paying closer attention to what diners - and not just the paid professionals - are saying about them online. But when their ratings are hopelessly at odds with those of professional reviewers, it raises the question of who knows best: the critics or the dining public?

Whereas traditional restaurant guides, such as The Age Good Food Guide, will visit some restaurants up to six times before awarding its top prizes, Urbanspoon lets users ''like'' or ''dislike'' a restaurant without leaving their living room.