Readers who look very closely at the box which accompanies each restaurant review this week will notice a significant change in the star count. Prior to 2020, each restaurant was theoretically eligible for 15 stars, since it was graded in three separate categories: Food, service and atmosphere.
The system dates back many years, and long precedes my tenure as critic. My best guess is that it was adopted so that even the toughest review came with a built-in consolation prize: A restaurant might produce one-star food but serve it with four-star aplomb.
In reality, though, restaurant owners and patrons both tend to focus exclusively on the food score. In the case of the hypothetical restaurant mentioned above, that review would forevermore be recalled as a one-star review.
That’s not fair to the restaurant or potential customers, who might miss out on a memorable dining experience because the sous chef at the time of review had a bad knack for undercooking or oversalting.
So, henceforth, a restaurant will receive a single star designation that will fold in all of the factors which contribute to the guest experience, including those that don’t fit perfectly under the food, service or ambiance headings. For example, is an imaginative cocktail program an element of service, which is how wine is usually classified? Or does it belong with food on account of the fresh herbs in the glasses? We’ll no longer have to wonder.
Food will remain the most important consideration. If everything a restaurant serves is inedible, you’ll have to read the entire no-star review to learn about the decorative murals which might redeem a visit.
But the final number will be holistic and, more frequently than in the past, whole. With nothing to tilt the stars in one direction or another, I’ve had to resort to half stars in food assessments so often that the scale was becoming a de facto 10-star scheme. By contrast, I don’t recall ever issuing a half star for service or ambiance.
As for what the stars mean, that won’t change. And my best guess is that twos (adequate if you’re in the neighborhood or seeking this type of dining) and threes (solid example of this type of dining) will still dominate, but rolling together all of the tangibles and intangibles, which is what civilian diners do instinctively, may well change the picture for an individual restaurant. At the very least, it’s sure to bring it into clearer focus for readers.