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…