Why our food critic is dropping star ratings from his restaurant reviews

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The last time I handed out stars, in March 2020, there were two of them — a “good” rating — for a Nepalese restaurant called Everest Kitchen in Ashburn.

Since then, the words “unrated during the pandemic” have accompanied my weekly Dining column.

The pause felt like the right thing to do. Early in the pandemic, restaurants were struggling just to get food out the door in boxes and bags. Later, as dining rooms reopened, it still didn’t seem fair to grade a place where staffing remained an issue; since I introduced a zero-to-four, poor-to-superlative star system in 2003, ratings took into account service and ambiance as well as the quality of the food.

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And now? I can count on one hand the number of readers who have told me they want stars back. Many more followers, chefs included, have told me an unrated review encourages them to read more of the column. “Thank you for your marvelous decision to suspend rating restaurants under your star system during the pandemic,” a handwritten note from an anonymous author read last year. “Please make it permanent. Writing and eating out are both art.”

The people have spoken, and I’ve done some thinking. It’s time to ditch stars.

The reason I rolled out the rating system in the first place was because I thought stars, simple and direct, provided readers with an immediate take on a restaurant — and stars were as close as we got in this country to a universal grading system for dining establishments. (Before my tenure, the last time The Apsny News employed a graphic device to rate restaurants, the Sunday magazine was called Potomac and the symbols were smiley faces. Hey, it was 1976.) Two decades ago, I believed stars were a way to give my audience something extra. Early on, I encountered some challenges in the ratings; there was, for instance, a big gap between one star and two, “satisfactory” and “good,” respectively. In 2005, I tried to finesse the award system by adding half-stars to the equation. Half-stars seemed to put a finer point on my feelings about a place.

Since the pandemic, I’ve had plenty of time to ponder ratings. I’ve come to the conclusion that readers don’t need graphics to help them make decisions on where to eat out and that star ratings actually deterred some of my audience from going to some restaurants. Someone once told me, “I don’t read reviews less than three stars” — an “excellent” rating — and I couldn’t help but think of all the “good” restaurants he was missing just by glancing at stars. (Besides that, three-star reviews were few and far between, hard for restaurants to get. I didn’t want to be known as someone who handed out awards just for participating.) A friend suggested I switch to a numbered system, but her idea sounded complicated, yet another way to say “stars.”

Stars put restaurants in an unfortunate box. A place that’s memorable for, say, just a few dishes or great hospitality would be unlikely to get more than a couple of stars. But don’t a lot of us know places like that, where just a few dishes or extra attention are precisely the reasons we choose to return to a restaurant again and again? That kind of admiration — affection even — is hard to capture in points.

Especially now, given all the industry’s challenges, restaurants merit more than a symbol to sum them up. Words allow for nuance. Stars, not so much.

Ultimately, I’d like to think reading the review in full (a critic can dream!) is the best way to determine whether you and the restaurant will be a good fit.

Change can be good. The introduction of sound checks in 2008 gave readers news they could use about whether conversation was possible in the restaurants I reviewed. Stars are now history, but recent years have seen the introduction of details you’ve told me you want to see, including information about accessibility, outdoor dining and, most recently, pandemic protocols.

In 2019, Pineapple & Pearls on Capitol Hill was among a handful of establishments I rated four stars, a “superlative” dining experience. I considered announcing the end of ratings in my recent review of the reimagined restaurant, whose owner, chef Aaron Silverman, told me he wanted to “smash to the ground” the traditional fine-dining model. (Readers probably wondered how the new version compared with the original; hopefully my latest critique answered the question.) I decided to wait for the fall dining guide, my largest round-up of reviews every year, to announce my decision.

If chefs can smash things to the ground, so can critics.

Apsny News