One morning about 10 years ago, an old flame sent me off to work with a small container of turkey chili. I microwaved it for lunch, ate it rapidly, and praised the chef in a glowing Facebook post. She seemed quite pleased, but went on to ask, in the comments section, how many stars I would give it. After careful consideration, I decided to award two stars, and left the well-deserved rating in the semi-public thread.
The compliment was not received as well as I’d hoped. “Why only two?” she asked, a question that, as best as I can recall, prompted me to expound upon the standard four-star restaurant review system employed by the likes of the New York Times, Washington Post, and, at the time, yours truly. I tend to hover around one star for a good restaurant with a hit-or-miss menu, two stars for an all-around high-performing restaurant, and three stars for a more select group of ambitious, best-in-class venues. Most critics, myself included, rarely use four stars or zero stars more than once a year. And so if I’m giving a really good brasserie, pizzeria, or Cuban spot two stars — places staffed by folks who’ve dedicated their lives to cooking for others — such a designation would be a heck of a win for a spicy homemade stew, I assumed.
I’ve meditated upon that embarrassing interaction over the years, and while there’s obviously something to unpack about my interpersonal skills of yesteryear, the larger lesson is that even when a critic capably wields the primary weapon in their arsenal — words — the starred rating at the end of a review can still cause more confusion and disappointment than clarity. So I’m happy to say we’re getting rid of stars at Eater.
Like most publications, Eater has refrained from issuing stars during the pandemic. Using a rating system to score someone’s work often doesn’t jibe with the realities of an industry where simply staying in business and protecting one’s staffers are the chief goals. But the past year has also led me to wonder whether stars really jibe with good food criticism at all, and whether we’re better off permanently dropping this blunt instrument that doesn’t evolve as dynamically as our language or our values.
Stars, of course, have tended to favor more expensive establishments at the highest levels. Every current four-star review from the Times or this critic — or three-star review from Michelin in New York — is a $150-per-person-plus European- or Japanese-leaning tasting-menu spot. And while local outlets have awarded two or three stars to more affordable spots like pizzerias and taco trucks, sometimes publications default to a fully non-starred format for those venues, be it the Bib Gourmands at Michelin, Hungry City at the Times (which has not been published since March 2020), or First Look and Buy Sell Hold at Eater. It’s all enough to make a reader legitimately ask whether there is a separate class of food reviews here, particularly for less stereotypically prestigious spots.
Eater is far from the first outlet to leave the star party. Soleil Ho, restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, announced two years ago that she’d be dropping the newspaper’s star ratings. “Since I plan to write reviews of everything notable that I find in the Bay Area…I believe imposing a star rating system that purports to put all of those things along the same spectrum would do a disservice to all of them,” she wrote in the winter of 2019, a sentiment I agree with. The Los Angeles Times dropped starred ratings in 2012 after Jonathan Gold rejoined the paper; subsequent critics Bill Addison and Patricia Escárcega (who has since departed) continued that policy. And Tejal Rao hasn’t issued stars since she took on the role of the New York Times California restaurant critic in 2018.
All told, most (but not all) West Coast reviewers have been publishing critiques without stars for years, and some of their most innovative work feels alive and meaningful in ways that wouldn’t be possible if those missives were colored by a hierarchical system created over half a century ago. Rao’s separate pre-pandemic takes on Guatemalan street vendors and a spendy San Francisco Thai spot both come across as especially powerful given how the critic deployed comparably eloquent language — with careful attention to culinary technique — across the two very different columns.
The first wave of COVID-19 put more than a temporary pause on traditional criticism last March, due in no small part to the fact that restaurants across the country were largely prohibited from dine-in service. When reviews started to intermittently appear in the summer of 2020, critics shied away from hard-nosed language they sometimes used in the past — and the stars or other metrics themselves had vanished to reflect the new tone of reviewing. One of the questions that followed, of course, is when or whether stars would return across the board — especially now that restaurants, however hobbled, are bringing their dining rooms back to normal.
The Infatuation, which publishes listicle reviews of restaurants, permanently ditched their own 0 to 10 rating scale last summer, while our friends at New York magazine, also owned by Vox Media, haven’t announced when they’ll bring back their numerical scale (though I’m told they plan to). Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier in July that stars will be back, but that he doesn’t know when, while the Boston Globe’s Devra First said in that same column that she doesn’t see herself returning to stars in the near future; the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan, in turn, is holding off on his own star-like “bell” ratings.
The New York Times hasn’t announced its own intentions yet. Critic Pete Wells, who told me he has “no idea” when he might use stars again, has long operated using a four-star scale, as have all of the paper’s chief New York critics starting with Craig Claiborne in the 1960s. Over 50 years later, restaurant critics around the country, including myself at Eater and elsewhere, have penned reviews based on that same scale. Until we stopped, that is.
Michelin, the world’s oldest restaurant guide — its three star system began in 1931 as a way to encourage travel and boost tire sales — is one of the only major publications to publish stars during the pandemic.
There’s a case to be made for stars acting as a helpful bit of shorthand to help parse the city’s tens of thousands of restaurants, not to mention thousands of reviews across publications. Say what you will about the harsh vagaries of Yelp stars and other (terrible) user review sites, but they reflect a certain consumer demand for clear(ish) metrics on how to spend one’s scarce disposable income, especially when the consumer is literally standing outside of the venue in question.
Food criticism isn’t unique in its use of ratings. Consumer product reviews frequently rely on numerical grades, whether they’re pieces of expository tech journalism from the Verge or blunter bullet point assessments from Consumer Reports. This makes sense: People spend a lot of money to buy, say, a smartphone or a new television, and those shoppers often rely on both benchmarking and critical scores to make tough financial decisions — decisions that could impact both their professional and personal lives for a half a decade to come.
Things are a bit less quantitative, however, in more free-form arts reviews, where many readers don’t so much come seeking buy-or-not consumer advice as they come looking for a bit of vicarious experience, or to wrestle with complicated cultural questions. You won’t find as many stars in this part of the neighborhood, where writers might seek to enrich the viewing experience through contextualizing something, attempting to debunk misconceptions about it, or reckoning with competing strains of thought.
A critic wouldn’t necessarily assess Picasso’s brushstrokes vis-a-vis his peers the way a university professor might mark up a calculus exam, not because technicals aren’t important, but because there are more pressing stories to tell that can’t be quantified by a star or a numerical score. In these instances, a critic might think more broadly about, say, the male gaze in Berthe Morisot’s In England, the importance of hip-hop as a musical language in Hamilton, the depiction of gender identity in Rent, or the significance of trompe l’oeil cakes in a conspiracy theory era.
The interesting thing about restaurant reviewing is how it straddles those two different fields, blending the urgent, service-y aspects of bare-bones product reviews (the steaks are so overcooked they’re barely edible) with the more complex inquiries of full-fledged arts criticism. Dealing with both sides of that coin is a natural part of food writing.
Restaurants, after all, are places that traffic in interpretive artistic expression — with chefs pushing the limits of what constitutes luxury or of what good food should look like. But those venues also fulfill an acute biological function, something that most other social activities can’t necessarily claim: The need to eat. That reality creates a bit of intrinsic tension over whether stars are a proper fit here, though I’ve historically come down on the side of yes, they most certainly are, as they’re a big part of what has helped imbue food criticism with a practical and useful ethos. If one can rely on review metrics for that new iPhone or new gaming console you buy every few years, does the reader not deserve something as precise for an activity some of us engage in a few times a week or more? That’s all the more true if the star acts as a cheat sheet for a restaurant review that assigns more importance to how museum-style didactics impact taste perception than how the food itself actually tastes.
Or consider the case of Rotten Tomatoes. Some folks like me read movie reviews not to decide whether to watch a film in the first place, but rather, to engage with a piece of writing that helps them articulate, reaffirm, or confront their own emotions tied to something they’ve already seen. Still, the existence of the Rotten Tomatoes juggernaut suggests that no lack of consumers just want very basic and accessible advice. It’s a site that literally applies ratings to movie reviews that lack them, and then aggregates them into a collective score — a score that’s often placed below a movie right before you download it to your computer. For so many people, Rotten Tomatoes is movie criticism. It all leads one to ask: If there’s such a desire for this type of information, why not cater to it, especially if it opens up readers to the longer review and to arguments that can’t be distilled as easily?
Stars are, one could argue, a nice gateway drug to better appreciating criticism.
If only those stars, however in demand they are, were more useful stand-ins for the complex workings of restaurants — or more equitably doled out. Two stars for two different restaurants rarely mean the same thing, even when doled out by the same critic. That’s a problem, even if a reviewer claims they’re assessing a venue on its own merits — or with regard to its direct peers — because stars inevitably lead to countless baffling and unfair comparisons.
Unlike laptops that do roughly the same things across the board, restaurants fulfill a wider array of social, biological, and culinary roles throughout society. A small takeout establishment is probably going for something a bit different than a luxe omakase spot. And while there’s something brilliantly subversive about Wells filing a harsh two-star review of the oligarchian Per Se years after a two-star ode to Chinese banquet spot Lake Pavilion — and shortly before a two-star take on a plant-forward storefront like Superiority Burger — one could also argue that you shouldn’t need a degree in contemporary food culture to understand that a twofer is a win for two of them and a failure for the third. One could say the same of my enthusiastic one-star review of Bolivian Llama Party a few years back, and a one-star takedown of the disastrous Saul, a fancier spot at the Brooklyn Museum.
One also thinks of Michelin, whose inspectors have only managed to find a single street hawker in Singapore worthy of a star, or a sole Bangkok food stall. More locally, the inspectors haven’t awarded stars to any pizzerias, barbecue spots, or delis, and they don’t currently have any stars assigned to the city’s brilliant Thai, Vietnamese Indian restaurants, which doesn’t so much call into question the quality of all that food but rather the starred system itself — and the folks who implement that system.
To be fair, it’s unlikely that anyone would read the aforementioned reviews or Michelin blurbs and declare “screw it, let’s ditch our three-hour tasting menu dinner and have vegan gelato instead,” but it sure does seem like those fancier venues are benefiting from a curve because of creature comforts, deep wine lists, or the technical precision of, say, a brunoise — things that are effectively meaningless when you’re looking for one of the city’s best yuba sandwiches.
At some point, no matter how hard an individual critic tries to rebalance the star system, comparisons like these make it feel like there’s a glass ceiling on certain casual venues — particularly those of a non-European-American, non-Japanese, non-Korean variety — a ceiling that devalues their efforts and cheapens the perceptions of those venues in the eyes of consumers. In the end that reality has an impact on how much patrons are willing to pay for a certain type of food — or how they’ll treat the establishments that serve it. That is to say, will folks go for a fancy anniversary or client dinner, or will they simply relegate those restaurants to the domain of affordable, late-night munchie runs?
And while I like to think I’ve used my words as a journalist to counter some of those entrenched notions, my starred selections haven’t necessarily achieved the same effect. Or take another look at those Wells reviews of Lake Pavilion and Per Se. The critic appears to have the time of his life eating crab at the former, while the latter feels like a luxe purgatory. Remove the stars, and his words come into focus.
Stars get even trickier when critics try to reckon with issues that the larger hospitality industry — and diners — are trying to work through, including urban planning, restaurant working conditions, culinary representation, and abuse. Consider Ho’s review of Thomas Keller’s La Calenda in Napa Valley, which was more an inquiry into cultural appropriation than a straightforward list of what to order and what to avoid. Ultimately, the critic appreciated the venue’s approach to Oaxacan fare and Mexican cuisine, but the larger thrust of her column was to help provide readers with a blueprint for the type of questions to ask when, say, a rich, white-owned restaurant group (that attracts a similar clientele) borrows from a culture with less mainstream representation.
And then there’s the New York Times review of the Four Seasons, where the critic dedicates about as many words toward issues surrounding an owner convicted of sexual assault as toward the food and ambience. Still, Wells somehow awards a star, which translates as “good” in Times parlance. “This review will not be tied up with a bow. All I have are threads,” Wells writes, juxtaposing his misgivings against the fact that this was supposedly a “very good” seafood restaurant with nice interiors. Tying things up with a bow, alas, is precisely what he does with that star, the same rating he once gave to one of the city’s top slice joints. A star is an accolade, and an accolade can’t stand in for a type of writing that is, by its very nature, an effort to ponder things — sometimes in ambiguous ways.
A star, to be fair, is just one character in a longer review that can span upward of 1,200 words, but it’s a powerful mnemonic nonetheless. It is the framework through which people understand a review, classify it, or decontextualize it. Stars sit at the top and bottom of the column in question. Food media tout those stars by publishing lists or landing pages for their own top-rated restaurants. Those ratings also find their way directly into Google search results (sometimes with the incorrect star count). And restaurants put those stars on their webpages, Instagram pages, and Resy landing pages, often without links, as testaments to nothing but the stars themselves and the folks who don’t fully read a given write-up. High-profile food documentaries even build entire storylines on the basis of losing and gaining stars. There’s something troubling about all this, about how a star, while designed as an incidental shorthand for the words of a journalist, can end up becoming a fully imprecise substitute, and a more visible one to boot.
It’s not yet clear what type of reboot the hospitality industry will get as it slowly returns to normal — a lot will sadly stay the same — but personally I’d like to hit the reset button on this tiny but outsized aspect of food criticism. Of course, that reset is already well underway. The lack of stars over the past year has helped promote a flattening of various review formats. That is to say: Now that stars are largely gone, they’re no longer a curious omission whose absence might suggest a second tier of criticism, or betray that the person writing the critique wasn’t allowed to award stars in the first place.
I’ve enjoyed reading Wells, Adam Platt, my colleague Robert Sietsema, and other critics more than ever under their current metric-free regimes. And quite frankly I’ve appreciated publishing reviews without a certain query popping up in my head during the eating or drafting process: How many stars should I give this place? It’s a question that sometimes feels like a metaphorical anchor reeling me into arguments concerning quality and service, instead of having me look more deeply for meaning.
Readers will have to work a little harder to grapple with the text of a review now, and that’s a good thing, because they won’t be able to rely on the crutch of a star and all its baggage ranging from empty authority (that’s you, Michelin) to veiled objectivity to false accessibility. Removing stars will, I think, make a column and its words feel more alive and ready for interpretation, rather than something one can reduce to a static data point — like the way Yelp aggregates its user reviews into a numerical score that can make or break a venue.
And inasmuch as the best criticism often strives to be as nuanced or ambiguous as the art or craft it’s trying to assess, it’s fairer for both readers and restaurants alike that we do away with a device that can be more easily associated with an unequivocal celebration or a damnation of something. I’ve put a lot of thought into my starred ratings over the years, but I’m certain they were one of the most arbitrary parts of my job. I’m glad I won’t be using them anymore.