I’ve employed a variation on the system found in The New York Times and many other newspapers:
** Very Good
(zero) Satisfactory, Fair, or Poor
Like some newspapers (but not the Times), I award half-stars to further discriminate between rating categories. Similar to Zagat (but not most newspapers), I consider the food, service, and ambiance separately, in addition to awarding an overall rating.
I attach greater significance to the food rating than to service or ambiance. If service and/or ambiance are only a bit better/worse than the food rating, then the overall rating will simply be the same as the food rating. However, if I feel that service/ambiance make a significant difference, I adjust the overall rating accordingly.
Here’s a bit more on what the stars mean to me:
One star: Good in its category; worth a look in its neighborhood, but not worth a special trip.
Two stars: One of the city’s better restaurants in its category. More than just “good for the neighborhood.” A “minor destination,” though possibly with some significant limitations. Worth going at least somewhat out of your way.
Three stars: The city’s best, or very close to the best, of its kind. A special experience. A destination in every respect, without any serious limitations. Nationally, or perhaps even internationally recognized (or deserves to be).
Four stars: A transcendent experience, one of the world’s best. Worth a trip to New York in its own right.
For service and ambiance, I award stars based on my views of what is generally expected for a restaurant in its category. Service, I think, is self-explanatory. Ambiance refers to décor and related issues, such as the noise level, spacing of tables, and so forth.
One and two stars are not bad ratings. They literally mean “good” and “very good” respectively.
Like the Times, I take price into account, but I am not as price sensitive as Frank Bruni. If something is “very good,” it doesn’t suddenly become “bad” because I think the restaurant is over-charging for it. I usually mention prices—at least for what I ordered—and you can decide for yourself if you think it’s worth it. In borderline cases, I may award a slightly higher rating for a great bargain, or a slightly lower one for egregiously over-priced fare.
Unlike the Times, I don’t limit the star system to “$25-and-over” restaurants.The Times isn’t entirely consistent about this anyway. And I will sometimes rate restaurants that the professional critics didn’t bother to review.
Note: For more on the stars, see this post.