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Cantina 1910 Owner Strikes Back Against Yelpers

Andersonville is diverse enough for those with different tastes, Mark Robertson says.

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Cantina 1910
Cantina 1910
Marc Much
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

The owners of Cantina 1910 spent more than two years refining their modern Mexican concept that opened in September in Andersonville. They loved the area, and wanted to contribute to the diversity of food —price points and genre— in the area. But apparently some customers have missed the farm-to-table point, as a Reader review that pointed out some less-than-constructive neighborhood criticism and a deluge of negative reviews on the restaurant's Yelp page.

"If you don't have any constructive feedback for me, I don't know what to tell you," Cantina 1910 co-owner Mark Robertson said.

Over those two years, Robertson and chef Diana Dávila held pop-up dinners and received feedback, fine tuning what Cantina eventually became, part coffee shop, part casual dining, taqueria and bar with a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. Sure, they've taken some Yelpers to heart, but for every well-meaning critique of the size of the tacos, there were three or four complaining about a lack of margaritas or that Cantina charged for salsa. The salsa is made with locally-sourced ingredients, like all the food at the restaurant: "That's not inexpensive, if we offered free salsa we'd have to raise the prices for everything else," Robertson said.

Like any customer feedback tool, Robertson sees the value in constructive criticism. The bar has added margaritas, and after two weeks the tacos increased in size. But there's still those who expect an experience familiar at chain restaurants, ones who don't want to understand what Cantina 1910 offers.

"A lot of people heard 'Mexican' and they wanted cheap margaritas and tacos, to hang out all day and drink and eat cheap tacos," Robertson said. "That wasn't inline with what our concept was, not that there's anything wrong with that."

What's also troubling are reviews questioning the authenticity of the Mexican cuisine at the restaurant, as if there's a patent held that specifically outlines what Mexican and other so-called ethnic food should encompass. Though Cantina shares elevated dining attributes with nearby restaurants like Bongo Room, Hopleaf and the recently-opened Appellation, those three aren't held to the same levels of scrutiny as to what constitutes "authentic" cuisine. "If we had this on Randolph Street, I don't think we'd be getting the same feedback," Robertson said.

Two weeks ago "South Park" aired an episode, "You're Not Yelping," and lambasted reviewers for the power they think they hold over restaurants. That episode made Roberston feel at ease, as he saw that others observed what he witnessed.

"While the Yelp episode may have hit home personally to me, I've also watched them about Whole Foods and Starbucks," Roberston said. "They're able to come up with stereotypes about those businesses and make a very funny show."

Despite the recent firestorm, Cantina 1910 won't be changing concepts. It's only been two months and staff's still learning, but the restaurant's goal was to challenge the neighborhood and expectations for Mexican food, as other cities have done. Looks like they've been successful in ruffling feathers.