Food & Drink

We’re Getting Rid Of Starred Restaurant Reviews At Eater

It’s not yet clear what type of reboot the restaurant industry will get as it slowly returns to normal — especially after a pandemic that brought to light many of its inequities — but we’re hitting the reset button on this aspect of food criticism

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.

A yellow star juggles prime rib, pizza, shrimp, Chinese noodles, sushi, and other dishes above its head

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,

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