Restaurant Ratings: Do Fewer Stars Mean a Terrible Meal?

Lisa Lacy

We all have a general understanding that the more stars a restaurant receives in a review, the better. Del Posto, for example, was recently given four stars by The New York Times -- a rare accomplishment that inspired owner Mario Batali to tweet, "Holy Shitaly!!!"

It's safe to assume Batali's venture is a solid one, but what exactly do each of those stars mean in OTHER reviews? What's the difference between, say, a three-star restaurant and a two-star restaurant?

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of uniformity in restaurant ratings and it's hard to compare apples to apples. Some go as high as five; others stop at three.

Michelin ratings, published for restaurants in various cities in Michelin Guides (yes, like the Michelin Man), are said to be among the best known nationwide. According to the 2010 guide, a single Michelin star means a restaurant has "very good cuisine in its category"; two stars denote "excellent cuisine, worth a detour"; and three stars is "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey."

Your local paper likely has its own system, so you may have to read a few columns to get a sense of the reviewer's style and criteria. (Although -- a warning: reviewers seem to be a bit secretive about how they arrived at their conclusions, other than general statements about standards.)

The New York Times, for example, says its ratings range from zero to four stars and "reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambiance, and service, with price taken into consideration."

Further, the Times says four stars, for extraordinary, is "the highest accolade a critic for The New York Times can award a New York City restaurant."

Seven New York restaurants have received this honor: Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Masa, Per Se, Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, and now Del Posto. (So there's a list of places to eat the next time you visit!)

Three stars are given to restaurants the Times deems "excellent." Since 2004, the Times has given more than 30 restaurants three stars. You can find a list here.

Interestingly, you can easily search for three- and four-star restaurants on the Times' review site. Not so of anything less. Perhaps it is hubris on the part of the Times; perhaps those restaurants are really not worth searching for. (I have a hunch it's the former.)

But in order to shed a little light on the dynamics of a lesser-starred establishment, check out this review of new Lower East Side establishment Xiao Ye that critic Sam Sifton gave a "fair" rating with NO stars. Sifton called it an "artful misfire."

(Xiao Ye's owner, Eddie Huang, later posted a review-inspired letter from his mom on his own blog.)

Sifton complains that some of the dishes simply aren't good and that the owner and chef don't seem to care enough.

So perhaps that's a good barometer to use for lesser-starred establishments: How willing the reviewer sounds to go back again.

Do restaurant ratings influence where you go out to eat?

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