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Should the Star Ratings Take Price Into Account?

At the bottom of every New York Times restaurant review is this blurb, essentially unchanged for many years:

Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.

The paper never explains exactly how price is “taken into consideration.” Presumably, it means that a restaurant could receive a bonus star for being an exceptionally good value, or be docked a star for being too expensive.

I’d like to challenge that. Should the rating be price-sensitive? I can state at least four good reasons why not.

1. It is Open To Manipulation. In many notable cases, restaurants have raised their prices—sometimes substantially—just after they received a glowing New York Times review. For instance, when Frank Bruni awarded four stars to Eleven Madison Park, the prix fixe was $88; a year later, it is $125. Sam Sifton awarded four stars to Del Posto just a month ago; now, they have dropped their à la carte option, locking customers into a (minimum) $95 prix fixe.

I am not suggesting that either restaurant would lose the fourth star if the critic went back today, but these are hardly isolated examples. Country raised its prix fixe from $85 to $110 after Bruni gave it three stars. Fiamma went from $75 to $95 (later partly rolled back after Bruni called them on it). At Falai, a two-star restaurant, Bruni likewise saw a noticeable price increase (beyond the rate of inflation) when he returned two years later. In a blog post, he surveyed several other examples.

Now, I do realize that anything can change at a restaurant. But a talented chef is probably going to stay talented; an attractive dining room is probably going to remain that way. Prices, on the other hand, are merely the function of what a manager types into a word processor.

2. It Depends on Factors the Critic Can’t See. According to Joe Bastianich (partner with Mario Batali at Del Posto and many other restaurants), food is only 30 percent of the price—the rest being rent, labor, miscellany, and of course profit. The critic can see the food on the plate. He generally has no idea if the restauranteur got a sweet rent deal that enables him to undersell comparable restaurants. The restaurant might be saddled with union labor, which tacks on added costs. Restaurants that are part of larger empires might have the flexibility to run at a loss for a while, an option that independent outfits don’t have. Restaurants in hotels might be subsidized.

Lower rents, of course, are the reason why the dining scene has flourished in neighborhoods not formerly known for fine dining, like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Brooklyn. (The same was true twenty-five years ago in Tribeca, but it clearly isn’t now.) But those chefs don’t deserve bonus stars, just because they choose to locate in a low-rent district. Critics review restaurants, not rent deals.

3. It Makes Comparisons Much More Difficult. It is already hard enough to discern whether a pair of two-star restaurants are really comparable, when one four-tiered system needs to accommodate every genre and cuisine. But it only adds to the confusion when there is a mysterious price element in the mix. Is the two-star Torrisi Italian Specialties really punching at the same weight as fellow Italian two-stars Maialino and A Voce Columbus? Or is Torrisi getting a bonus for serving a bounty of pretty good food for just $50? It’s quite a bit less than you would pay at the other two places, but is it actually as good in the absolute sense?

4. Critics Should Evaluate Quality, Full Stop. Think about the other disciplines in which The Times employs critics: music, dance, film, theater, books, fashion, architecture. In no other, does the price of the product figure in the review. A critic gives an informed reaction to the product, independent of its economics. The Times doesn’t give better reviews to plays that open in cheaper off-Broadway houses; it reviews the production, not its price.

I am not suggesting that diners don’t, or shouldn’t, care what the meal costs. Of course we do. But value from the customer’s perspective depends on factors the critic can’t easily assess. For all of the above reasons, I think The Times ratings should be based on quality, full stop. The reviews, of course, would still show price ranges (as they do now). Diners can decide for themselves if the restaurant is “worth it.”

Reader Comments (5)

Did you read the Nello review? Price should certainly be taken into account. Recette also comes to mind. It typically only boils down to a statement that 'such and such is worth it if you care about this type of thing,' be it a perfect balance of flavors in a bite-sized 18$ morsel or the ability to make reservations.

What is really wrong with stars being a holistic evaluation, given that restaurants are holistic experiences?

November 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentere.a.

I did read the Nello review, and here is the crucial point: given his description, it was not a good restaurant at any price. Even without price taken into account, it would have deserved exactly what he gave it: zero stars.

Restaurant reviews are already holistic evaluations, as they should be. So are theater reviews, book reviews, and every other kind of review. But as I noted in the post, prices lend themselves to blatant manipulation, and often depend on factors (e.g., the rent) that the critic cannot observe. That is why price is different.

November 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

If a restaurant has a good deal on rent and passes those savings on to customers, why shouldn't that be considered? The ratings exist to inform consumers, not to reward chefs or to provide some kind of fair mechanism for restaurants to measure themselves against other restaurants. There's no obligation that a star rating absolve a restaurant for a deficit in the experience a it provides to its customers, or negate a benefit a restaurant provides to its customers, just because those deficits or benefits are caused by unseen factors, or are not distributed evenly across all restaurants. I can see the argument why cost shouldn't be considered in a star rating, but differential causation for price discrepancies isn't one of them.

November 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbillyshears

If a restaurant has a good deal on rent and passes those savings on to customers, why shouldn't that be considered?

The same reason why the Times doesn’t review plays based on the underlying rent the producer pays the theater, nor does it review books based on printing costs.

As I noted above, taking cost into consideration just encourages restaurants to manipulate their prices artificially during the initial 2 or 3 months, knowing that after the reviews they can do whatever they want.

November 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

Honestly, the rater shouldn’t pay attention to solely the food or star rating of the restaurant. A great rating should factor in a great fine dining restaurant menu, a desirable atmosphere and fabulous service.

November 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRestaurant i

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