I hope your Thanksgiving (though it’s been nearly a week now, hasn’t it?) was four stars. The BEST.
I’d like to talk about restaurant ratings in terms of “stars” today. This is something I’ve thought a lot about, researched, and always wanted to implement. But I wanted to do it the right way – and I think I’ve developed my point of view on the subject. So, without further ado – the brand-new, hot-off-the-press Eat Sleep Eat Ratings icons:
Now bear with me and let me explain the logic behind the icons, because it’s important for readers to consider the argument I’m presenting. Every food, local, and national newspaper and magazine has its own system of star ratings that it abides by. In The Association of Food Journalists published a Food Critics’ Guide, which details the following instructions for the use of star ratings:
(Extraordinary) Transcendent. A one-of-a-kind experience that sets the local standard.
(Excellent) Superior. Memorable, high-quality food; exciting environs; savvy service; smart concept.
(Good) Solid example of restaurant type.
(Fair) Just OK. A place not worth rushing back to. But, it might have something worth recommending: A view, a single dish, friendly service, lively scene.
(Poor) Below-average restaurants.
In accordance with these guidelines to judging local restaurants on a fair yet competitive scale, I’ve developed my ratings system to both deliver an at-a-glance restaurant judgement and an education for readers. I think the latter part is the most important, and in fact essential element to delivering a visual rating. For food critics and bloggers like myself, the act of giving a shorthand form of communication makes us responsible for explaining those ratings. This is something that really bothers me about Yelp and its ilk – Yelp features a 5-star system, and until this year, Zagat used a 30-point scale. But there’s no accompanying description to define that scale from a user-facing perspective (users who log on to Yelp to publish reviews are guided in their ratings choice, but the rest of us don’t see the criteria.)
That blind level of nuance and variation in ratings can be confusing, perhaps not for the site user, editor or web blogger making the call, but for the readers interpreting them. And with services like Yelp, the star rating is actually just an aggregate of the overall rating from community reviewers, who are not professional journalists. The power to grant a sweeping five stars by happy reviewers and zero stars by displeased customers creates an all-or-nothing scale that’s too broad, with no way to contextualize and differentiate truly excellent – say, Le Bernardin, the No. 2 rated restaurant in New York City – from excellent in context, which can be anything from the best burger join in town to an inconsistent farm-to-table restaurant.
So, my goal is to use a rating system that puts restaurants in the context of the local city. Some cities are known more for having good food and a more sophisticated restaurant scene than others, so it’s not fair to judge a Le Bernardin or a Blue Hill against the best restaurant in my hometown of McKinney, Texas. But ratings also shouldn’t swing the other direction, as they often do, and overcompensate for food businesses in smaller markets. This is why the majority of restaurants in a given city will receive two stars, meaning “good.” Not great, not bad, just good. Those restaurants are everywhere. Three stars are out there depending on the city – Dallas is fortunate to have quite a few of them. Four star restaurants are exceptionally rare and represent the ideal restaurant, from food to service to ambience. Chefs work their entire career to achieve a four star rating. And yet, anyone can simply log on to Yelp and give essentially any restaurant five stars. Are you starting to see why the situation irks me? It’s not fair or responsible to local restaurants and it’s a service best left to professional reviewers.
Sorry to be long-winded – as you can see, I’ve thought a lot about this and I feel strongly about it. I do my best in every review that I write to balance entertainment with accuracy, fairness and ethical journalism. The good news is, by leveraging ratings systems appropriately, readers can become more educated in their choices and chefs and restaurants can receive more useful and structured constructive criticism.
Thanks for reading – now how about you check out my very first post using the new rating system?