Entries in Pete Wells (8)

Sunday
Apr202014

Seeing Stars: Eater Blinks and So Do I

The stars are back.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Times announced it was dropping the “star system” for rating restaurants. To my knowledge, no other publication followed the LAT’s lead.

In New York City, the Times, New York magazine, the Post, the Daily News, Time Out New York, the Observer, and GQ, all give stars. Among print publications that regularly review restaurants in New York, to my knowledge only the New Yorker and the Village Voice have yet to use stars (and they never did).

Last week, Eater.com (which had long eschewed reviews of any kind) began two new series of reviews, with critics Ryan Sutton (formerly of Bloomberg) and Robert Sietsema (formerly of the Village Voice), who will use separate non-overlapping four-star systems. (New York is the only other publication with separate star systems for low- and high-end restaurants.)

After the LAT announced its decision, the Times’ Pete Wells filed a blog post explaining why his reviews would continue to have stars:

No two critics are going to have the same reaction to a restaurant, and no two critics are going to come up with identical interpretations of the precedent. The whole process of critiquing restaurants is inherently subjective. Readers are free to disagree with the critic. Go ahead and throw the newspaper across the room if you like. That’s part of the fun. . . .

Whether you think that renders the stars meaningless depends entirely on what you expect them to do. If you hope they are going to organize the entire New York City restaurant scene into an objective and verifiable hierarchy of good, better and best, you’re going to find that the reviews are a weekly exercise in frustration. (A corollary: If you read the reviews believing that all restaurants with a given number of stars are meant to be equally good, you’re going to lose your mind.)

On the other hand, if you understand that the stars accompany a review of at least 1,000 words, I hope you’ll believe that they do have meaning. The reviews have to cover a lot of ground. They tell you what kind of restaurant is being reviewed, how it looks and feels, how customers are treated, how some of the dishes taste and often whether it’s worth the price. A star ranking from zero to four can’t do any of those things in any meaningful way, but it can try to serve as shorthand for how strongly the reviewer is recommending the restaurant.

After the LAT announcement, I introduced my own system, which not-coincidentally was a five-step scale, just as the stars had been (four to zero), but—as I then saw it—without the stars’ historical baggage. From highest to lowest, my ratings were:

  • Extraordinary
  • Category Killer
  • Critic’s Pick
  • Neighborhood Spot
  • Not Recommended

These categories had always approximated my general sense of what the stars ought to mean, although not all critics used them that way. I found in practice that my new system was no more liberating than the stars. In fact, it was less discriminating, because I had used half-stars in the past, but I had allowed myself no way to designate a restaurant as, for example, “Neighborhood Plus.”

Other problems I saw with the star system seem less serious to me now. I do not fundamentally take issue with a restaurant like Roberta’s receiving three stars, as it did from Sutton last week, assuming you agree with his assessment. Restaurants are rated against the ideal versions of themselves, not against others in completely different genres. You could agree with Sutton’s rating, while concluding at the same time that Roberta’s isn’t for you. (That, in fact, is precisely my view of Roberta’s.)

There is nothing to be done about the fact that, on crowdsourced review sites like Yelp, a three-star review is terrible, while to most professional critics it is terrific. In my system, a one-star restaurant is “good,” which ought to be a compliment. I cannot do anything about the fact that some people will read my reviews, see one star, and think, “It must be awful.” The readers who say that haven’t read the review.

There remain considerable differences in the ways critics use the star system. Some publications go up to five stars, although most use four. Some go down to zero, but others stop at one. Some use half-stars; others don’t. Because of this, stars are generally not comparable across publications. For a given publication and critic, the stars, as Wells put it, “serve as shorthand for how strongly the reviewer is recommending the restaurant.”

But the system, in whatever fashion it is used, remains the lingua franca of restaurant reviews.

A few years ago, the Post’s Steve Cuozzo dropped the stars (in fact, he dropped traditional “reviews” entirely), but after a while concluded that he might as well re-instate them. I’ve now come to the same conclusion.

Thursday
Jul042013

Michelin–New York Times Ratings Comparison

After the jump, you’ll find the list of all New York City restaurants currently open, that:
(1) Have now, or have ever had, at least one Michelin star; or,
(2) Have now, or have ever had, three or four New York Times stars.

For both Michelin and The Times, the list shows the maximum number of stars it has ever had (“Max”), and the current number of stars it has (“Curr.”). In the last two columns, you’ll find the name of the last Times critic who reviewed the restaurant and the date of the review. Click the link on the date to read the review itself.

The two rating systems are correlated. Most of the Michelin 1-star restaurants have two or three Times stars. Most of the Michelin 2-star restaurants have three Times stars. Most of the Michelin 3-star restaurants have four Times stars.

Given this correlation, you can find restaurants where the two systems disagree. For instance, Babbo has three Times stars but zero from Michelin. Danny Brown in Queens has a star from Michelin but has never even been reviewed in The Times.

Click to read more ...

Wednesday
Jul252012

Pete Wells and the Two-Star Restaurant

In case you hadn’t noticed, the New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells, likes to give two stars. In seven months on the job, it has become his base rating. Half of his reviews (50%) have been two stars; just 27 percent have received one star:

It wasn’t always this way. Sam Sifton gave one star 44 percent of the time, two stars 33 percent. Eater has a handy distribution of Frank Bruni’s ratings over the course of his tenure. People jokingly called him “Frankie Two-Stars,” due to his fondness for that rating. But he always gave one star more frequently than two. In his final year, he gave one star 45 percent of the time, two stars just 33 percent—about the same as Sifton.

Has there been a sudden upswing in the quality of New York restaurants? I don’t know anyone who thinks so. Wells is just a far easier grader than Sifton or Bruni.

Wells’s reviews are infinitely better than Sifton’s, and his knowledge is superior to Bruni’s. He’s just generous with the stars—or at least, with two of them. (His percentage of three-star reviews is on par with Bruni’s and Sifton’s. He’s filed only one four-star review, Le Bernardin, and I doubt anyone would argue with that.)

In the New York Times star system, one star is supposed to mean “Good.” Wells’s one-star reviews almost never sound good. Although the rating system hasn’t changed, Wells is reviewing as if one star means “Fair.” Sifton, in contrast, wrote quite a few enthusiastic one-star reviews.

For instance, if we consider just Chinese restaurants: Sifton gave one star raves to Imperial Palace, Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan, and 456 Shanghai Cuisine. Wells has given the deuce to Wong, RedFarm, Café China, and Mission Chinese Food. Are those four restaurants really a whole star better than Sifton’s trio of one-star places? I doubt it.

At this point, Wells would need to give one star exclusively for several months straight, just to get back to the ratings percentages of the Sifton/Bruni years. But the inflated ratings of his first seven months can’t be reversed. A sudden shift now would confer a boon on all the restaurants that got an extra star they didn’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s the descriptions of the stars that need to change. Readers are conditioned to believe that one star isn’t a compliment. Ryan Sutton of Bloomberg uses the same four-star scale, but in his system, one star means “Fair.” New York magazine claims that one star means “Good,” but its critic, Adam Platt, follows Wells’s de facto system: his one-star places never sound good, either. For an example, see his review of Mission Chinese Food this week.

On crowdsourced review sites like Yelp, a restaurant has to be really terrible to get anything less than three stars. None of the professional critics are that generous; nevertheless, the public perception is that one star is awful. For instance, the Eater.com headline after Platt’s review came out, was: “Adam Platt is Unimpressed by Mission Chinese Food.” Eater’s summary was accurate: Platt didn’t like the place, although he gave it one star, purportedly meaning “Good.”

Since Wells can’t retroactively re-rate seven months worth of restaurants, and the public will never think of one star as “Good,” perhaps The Times just needs to re-define its ratings. Change the definition of one star to “Fair,” and two stars to “Good,” and Wells’s ratings will make sense.

Monday
Mar122012

The End of the Star System

Last week, the Los Angeles Times stopped awarding “stars” in its restaurant reviews. I’ve decided to do the same, but with a twist.

Unlike the LAT, I am still going to rate restaurants—in my own way (see below). Ratings are still meaningful, and I believe that consumers both expect and value them. But the existing stars are too laden with baggage to be useful any more.

The Problem

Although the LAT’s decision precipitated mine, the underlying issue has been on my mind for several years. The LAT explained it this way:

Starting this week, The Times will no longer run star ratings with our restaurant reviews. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California — where your dinner choices might include a food truck, a neighborhood ethnic restaurant, a one-time-only pop-up run by a famous chef, and a palace of fine dining. Clearly, you can’t fairly assess all these using the same rating system. Furthermore, the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score. In its place, we’ll offer a short summary of the review.

There are also thoughtful comments from Huffington Post and preciently, a couple of weeks earlier, from Toqueland’s Andrew Friedman. Personally, I do not think the stars are any more difficult to apply than they were five, ten, or twenty years ago. They’ve always suffered from several problems.

First: a luxury restaurant is usually a candidate for three stars, but a disappointing luxury restaurant gets two; perhaps one or zero if it’s really bad. Conversely, a small neighborhood place usually gets one star, but it can get two if it’s exceptional. So the two-star level is a collision point, where you could find anything from SHO Shaun Hergatt to Parm.

Second: in the age of Yelp, most people are conditioned to think that if a restaurant gets one star, there must be something pretty badly wrong with it. Sometimes that’s true. But there are also some really good restaurants that have received one star in The New York Times—restaurants that the critic very clearly liked (despite some limitations), such as The Spotted Pig and Imperial Palace.

Compounding this problem, a number of critics use the same system nominally, but apply it in very different ways. Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton awards zero to four stars, but to him two stars is “good, reliable,” while one star is “fair.” At The Times, two stars is “very good,” while one star is “good.” Time Out New York awards one to five stars (never zero), so one star there is terrible.

Third: there is an unwritten rule that some types of restaurants just cannot get three stars, no matter how good they are. Pete Wells’s threespot for Il Buco A&V may be an attempt to change that—we’ll have to see—but for the most part only fairly luxurious, expensive restaurants even get the chance for three stars.

Finally: the star rating, at least as practiced by The New York Times, takes price into account. Restaurants sometimes get docked a star for being too expensive (in relation to perceived value); others get a “bonus star” for offering an exceptionally good deal. But this system is open to manipulation. Time and again, restaurants have raised their prices after receiving a rave review. The rating remains available years later on the paper’s website, even after the bargain prices that contributed to it are no longer offered. (I wrote a blog post decrying this practice a couple of years ago.)

These problems have been around for a very long time—perhaps forever. Because there are such heavily ingrained views about “what a three-star restaurant must be,” any attempt to redefine the system while still awarding stars, is doomed to fail. What’s needed is a different system entirely.

The New System

I am going to classify NYC restaurants in the following way:

Extraordinary: One of the best five to ten restaurants in the city; a restaurant that has it all. A transcendent experience, one of the world’s best. Worth a trip to New York in its own right.

Category Killer: A restaurant that aces its category, on its own terms, and without comparison to restaurants in totally different genres; the best, or very nearly the best, of its kind in NYC, without any serious weaknesses or omissions.

Critic’s Pick: the restaurant does something out of the ordinary, something that makes it better than the average place you can find in just about anywhere in town; a place worth traveling to—assuming the cuisine and ambiance fit your mood, tastes, and price point; a minor destination.

Neighborhood Spot: if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s nice to know it’s there. Worth considering if you’re in the area.

No Recommendation: Not recommended; I wouldn’t go back.

Simplistically, there are five levels, just as there were before, from four stars to zero. But these ratings no longer carry the same meanings. If you believe (as Sam Sifton did) that Motorino serves the city’s best pizza, then you can rate it a “Category Killer,” even though Sifton gave it just one star in the old system. (I have not reviewed Motorino.)

Even when I was awarding stars, I tended to think of restaurants in a hierarchy, as above. A two-star restaurant had to be a destination in some sense, while a three-star restaurant needed to be a destination in every sense. But time and again, I was frustrated by the need to maintain fidelity to what the stars had traditionally meant. Thus, I’ve assigned “Category Killer” status to The Spotted Pig and Minetta Tavern, even though I never would have considered giving them three stars.

The top rating—but only that one—retains its old meaning. Since there are no more stars, I’ve replaced it with its synonym, “Extraordinary.” This level has remained relatively pure over the years. Four-star restaurants have practically always been luxurious and very expensive, and there have never been many of them. I could envision a system where the city’s best hot dog stand gets four stars, because it’s the best that a hot dog stand can ever be. But no professional critic has ever come even close to doing that.

Over the years, I’ve gradually moved away from taking price into consideration. I am now making it explicit: ratings do not take price into consideration. I always state in my reviews what I paid for the food at the time. You can decide for yourself whether the restaurant is offering a good value. Price and value are dependent on too many factors that a critic can’t assess. Of course, if I think I overpaid or got a terrific deal, I’ll still say so. It just won’t affect the rating.

I’ve never made a distinction between rated restaurants and “$25 & Under,” as The New York Times does. But it is worth noting that this system can work at all price levels. Restaurants are rated against the Platonic Ideals of themselves. Shack Shack could be a Category Killer, if you believed it was the ideal burger stand. (That’s just a hypothetical; I haven’t reviewed Shake Shack, but the last guy who did wasn’t impressed.)

There can be more than one Category Killer of the same kind, but there can’t be too many. If you think that twenty sushi restaurants are Category Killers, then none of them are. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve given no steakhouses that status (unless you count Minetta Tavern as a steakhouse—which I don’t). There are a number of steakhouses that I recommend, but none that really stands sufficiently apart from the others.

This new system clearly does not eliminate subjectivity. No doubt more chefs think they are operating Platonic Ideals of their restaurants, than actually are. But at least this system articulates specific criteria for the ratings, eliminates price as a factor, and does not purport to measure wildly different establishments on the same numeric scale.

The Transition

RedFarm is the first review published on the new scale. It’s a Critic’s Pick.

Starting today, I will gradually convert my old reviews to this new system. I have hundreds of reviews accumulated, so this will take some time. I am not going to update the reviews of restaurants that have closed. And if I reviewed the same place multiple times, I am only going to update the most recent review (the one linked from my ratings page).

The Restaurant Index page now shows all the restaurants I’ve reviewed in approximately their final positions, but I am still adjusting them. (For reference, the old ratings are available here.)

It is possible that, after doing this for a while, I will find that this solution isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But the ratings described above correspond reasonably well to the way I believe critics ought to think about restaurants. It’s a system that I believe can work, and that other critics could use—not that I am holding my breath.

Wednesday
Mar072012

The Pete Wells Wars

Last Update: March 7, 2012

Pete Wells, the latest New York Times restaurant critic, has been in the saddle for two months. How’s he doing?

Early Assessment: Wells is being extremely lenient on casual restaurants, but he has his knives out for upscale ones. Shake Shack got a star, despite inconsistent burgers and terrible fries. Parm got two stars, when it is basically a $25 & Under sandwich place. Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria got three stars, when it is in essence a slightly over-achieving neighborhood trattoria/grocery.

But Crown received one star, in a review dripping with contempt for its affluent clientele. Jungsik received just two stars, along with some condescending comments about Korea.

Wells’s grade inflation has doomed his tenure from the very start. One star supposedly means “good” in the NYT star system. In a world where Shake Shack (with all its faults) gets one, and Parm gets two, nobody will ever feel good about a one-star review, ever again.

We will have to wait and see whether Il Buco A&V’s three-star review was just a mistake, or if he intends to start handing out three-star reviews like Christmas candy. (This post will be updated periodically.)

The table after the jump shows every starred (or star-eligible) restaurant review that Wells has filed, his rating, and what I consider to be the “correct” rating. Those Wells over-rated are highlighted in red; those he under-rated are highlighted in green.

Click to read more ...

Friday
Nov182011

New York Times 3 & 4-Star Restaurants

This is a list of New York City restaurants currently open, that:
(1) Have now, or have ever had, at least one Michelin star; or,
(2) Have now, or have ever had, three or four New York Times stars.

For both Michelin and The Times, the list shows the maximum number of stars it has ever had (“Max”), and the current number of stars it has (“Curr.”)

The two rating systems are somewhat correlated. Most restaurants with at least one Michelin star have three NYT stars, or did at one time, and vice versa. Where this is not the case, it could mean that one service or the other has over- or under-rated the restaurant.

Unlike The Times, the Michelin ratings are anonymous (you don’t know who came up with them) and are published without explanation. But the Michelin ratings are updated annually, and are often reflect changes (for good or bad) that The Times fails to react to.

So you could think of this list as the set of restaurants that are plausible candidates for three or four NYT stars, or were at one time, whether or not they are now.



Restaurant

Michelin

New York Times

Max.

Curr.

Max.

Curr.

Critic

Date

15 East

*

*

**

**

Bruni

7-11-07

Ai Fiori

*

*

***

***

Sifton

4-23-11

Aldea

*

*

**

**

Bruni

4-7-09

Annisa

*

*

**

**

Sifton

6-23-10

Aquavit

*

*

***

**

Sifton

7-21-10

Atera

**

**

***

***

Wells

7-18-12

Aureole

*

*

***

*

Sifton

11-11-09

A Voce Columbus

*

*

**

**

Sifton

11-25-09

A Voce Madison

*

*

***

***

Bruni

5-10-06

Babbo

*

***

***

Bruni

6-9-05

Blanca

*

*

**

**

Wells

10-16-12

BLT Fish

*

***

***

Bruni

4-20-05

Blue Hill

*

*

***

***

Bruni

8-2-06

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

***

***

Bruni

7/28/04

Bouley

**

*

***

***

Bruni

3-25-09

Breslin, The

*

*

*

*

Sifton

1-12-10

Brooklyn Fare

***

***

***

***

Sifton

4-27-11

Brushstroke

*

*

**

**

Sifton

7-13-11

Brushstroke (Ichimura)

***

***

Wells

9-26-12

Café Boulud

*

*

***

***

Bruni

8-15-07

Café China

*

*

**

**

Wells

5-2-13

Carbone

***

***

Wells

6-5-13

Casa Mono

*

*

**

**

Burros

1-28-04

Colicchio & Sons

***

***

Sifton

3/17/10

Corton

**

**

***

***

Bruni

12-10-08

Craft

*

***

***

Sifton

9-7-11

Daniel

***

***

****

****

Bruni

1/21/09

Danji

*

*

*

*

Sifton

8-17-11

Danny Brown

*

*

NEVER

NEVER

Del Posto

**

*

****

****

Sifton

9/29/10

Dévi

*

**

**

Bruni

11/17/04

Dovetail

*

*

***

***

Bruni

2/20/08

Dressler

*

*

**

**

Bruni

6/7/07

Eleven Madison Park

***

***

****

****

Bruni

8/12/09

Esca

***

***

Bruni

4/18/07

Felidia

***

***

Bruni

8/30/06

Four Seasons, The

***

**

Bruni

4/4/07

Gilt

**

**

**

**

Bruni

2/8/06

Gotham Bar & Grill

*

*

***

***

Sifton

5-17-11

Gordon Ramsay

**

**

**

**

Bruni

1/31/07

Gramercy Tavern

*

*

***

***

Bruni

6/6/07

Hakkasan

*

*

*

*

Wells

6-12-12

Il Buco A&V

***

***

Wells

3/14/12

Jean Georges

***

***

****

****

Bruni

4/19/06

Jewel Bako

*

*

*

*

Bruni

6/21/06

JoJo

*

***

***

Grimes

4/17/02

Jungsik

*

*

**

**

Wells

2-28-12

Junoon

*

*

**

**

Sifton

3-30-11

Kajitsu

**

*

**

**

Wells

6-18-03

Kyo Ya

*

*

***

***

Wells

4/11/12

Kurumazushi

*

***

***

Reichl

10/6/95

Lan Sheng

*

*

Laut

*

DB

Moskin

7/29/09

La Grenouille

****

***

Sifton

12/23/09

Le Bernardin

***

***

****

****

Wells

5/23/05

Le Cirque

****

**

Wells

9/19/12

Le Périgord

***

**

Grimes

10/11/00

Marc Forgione

*

**

**

Sifton

10/6/10

Marea

**

**

***

***

Sifton

10/21/09

Masa

***

***

****

***

Sifton

6-15-11

Minetta Tavern

*

*

***

***

Bruni

5/20/09

Modern, The (Bar Rm.)

***

***

Bruni

1/10/07

Modern, The (Dine. Rm.)

*

*

***

***

Wells

3-26-13

Molyvos

***

**

Asimov

7/17/02

Momofuku Ko

**

**

***

***

Bruni

5/7/08

Momofuku Ssäm Bar

***

***

Bruni

12/3/08

Nobu

*

***

***

Reichl

9/8/95

Nobu 57

***

***

Bruni

9/28/05

Nobu, Next Door

***

***

Reichl

12/23/98

NoMad, The

*

*

***

***

Wells

6/20/12

Oceana

*

*

***

**

Sifton

11/18/09

Palm & Palm Too

***

*

Sifton

7-27-11

Patroon

***

**

Asimov

7/10/02

Perry St.

*

***

***

Bruni

9/7/05

Per Se

***

***

****

****

Sifton

10-12-11

Peter Luger

*

*

***

**

Bruni

9/19/07

Picholine

**

*

***

***

Bruni

11/8/06

Public

*

*

**

**

Grimes

12/17/03

River Café

*

*

***

**

Grimes

2/13/02

Rosanjin

*

*

**

**

Bruni

3/28/07

Rouge Tomate

*

*

*

*

Bruni

1/7/09

Sammy’s Roumanian

***

***

Sheraton

5/21/82

Saul

*

*

**

**

Wells

10/7/09

Scalini Fedeli

*

*

*

Grimes

10/13/99

Scarpetta

***

***

Bruni

7/30/08

Seäsonal

*

*

**

**

Asimov

2/25/09

Shalezeh

*

NEVER

NEVER

Soto

**

**

**

**

Bruni

9/5/07

Spice Market

***

*

Bruni

6/24/09

Spotted Pig, The

*

*

*

*

Bruni

1/25/06