02/24/2012 11:59 am ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Falling Stars: It's Time for A New Way Of Evaluating Restaurants

There was a noteworthy aside in this week's New York Times review of Shake Shack. Critic Pete Wells awarded the establishment one star, which probably struck most readers as fair. But I couldn't help but wonder how exactly to weigh it because, since Wells took over the most scrutinized restaurant-reviewing position in the country, he's doled out two stars for Parm and three for Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria. Both evaluations raised eyebrows because the restaurants in question struck some as too casual in style of food, ambiance, and/or service to merit those ratings.

In the past, Shake Shack couldn't have hoped for more than one star and, given some quibbles Wells raised about such issues as consistency and the quality of the fries, might have wound up with no stars, signifying "fair," "satisfactory," or "poor." At any other time in the last 20 years, I'd have assumed that Shake Shack proprietor Danny Meyer and company were thrilled with their evaluation, but given current context, I wondered if they were disappointed. Were they expecting or hoping for two stars? If they were, you couldn't quite call them crazy. Not anymore. Because we're at that time in the cycle again: Diners and industry folk feel the critical ground shifting beneath their feet and they don't like that sense of disorientation and vulnerability. Every Tuesday night brings a defensive crouch as they brace for the next paradigm-shattering review.

Wells' recent reviews, and the reaction to them (old-guard and classist dismay; indifference or delight everywhere else) provide the perfect occasion for a serious discussion among food editors, writers, and chefs from coast to coast: Does a star system make sense in today's dining world, or should a new standard of evaluation be implemented?

Wells himself seems aware of the chatter, and made the following comment in his piece yesterday:

"To answer two obvious questions right away: Yes, I would give stars to a hamburger stand. No, probably not four stars."

For my money, the key word in there is probably. (He was joking, right?)

The tension between stars and the modern dining world is nothing new. Decades ago, when "serious" restaurants were defined by a formality of food, service, and customer, the star system made perfect sense. Tuxedoed maitre d's, white tablecloths, French words etched in a roller coaster of script on the menu, and French cuisine on the plate -- these were the stuff of three and four stars. But with the rise of New American Cuisine (we really need a new name for that) and the ever more casual settings and standards it ushered in, the categories became clouded.

Since then, the confusion has only deepened, in part due to continuing changes in restaurants and what we expect from them, and in part due to each critic's interpretation of the star system: For example, in New York City, shortly after she became the Times critic in the early 1990s, Ruth Reichl awarded three stars to the noodle parlor Honmura An, and went on to more than double the number of three-star restaurants in town. On the other hand, her successor, William Grimes, made an art of the one-star rave; neighborhood joint Red Cat and themey Calle Ocho both received rapturous praise, only to find a single star at the end of the rainbow. At the time, many felt that these restaurants had been under-valued. (Red Cat was subsequently elevated to two stars by Frank Bruni in the Times.) (Full disclosure: I coauthored The Red Cat's cookbook.)

For what it's worth, and I think it's worth quite a bit, a great many chefs have long been troubled, or even angered, by the star system. Some don't understand why restaurants are evaluated in such a stark way when movies, theater, art, and television are not. Others, mostly those who operate in a more traditional fine-dining mode, find it objectionable that a place where the staff wear t-shirts and the chairs are backless, can be accorded up to three stars. In my writing work and in connection with my website Toqueland, I speak with a great many chefs and have had a chance to discuss this topic with them over the years: "You can't do that," is the outraged sentence several of them have uttered to me on the subject, as though a great moral transgression were taking place. And don't get them started on how the Michelin system is applied here in the United States. When Spotted Pig received a Michelin star in the Guide's inaugural New York City edition, the same rating as Babbo, Mario Batali, himself an investor in Spotted Pig, complained in the New York Times that "They're blowing it . .. They can't put the Spotted Pig on the same level as Babbo."

To build on Batali's comment: When we rate things, we group them, and the emerging truth is that as restaurants overall have become more casual, and more and more casual restaurants serve ever-more sophisticated food (in the case of, say, David Chang's restaurants and Brooklyn Fare, some of the best in their city), a system created in an age of clear stratification no longer makes sense. Why should any person or entity adhere to a system created to reflect another age of dining?

Simply put: It's a square-peg-round-hole situation. And yet, nationwide, newspapers continue to insist that their critics employ the star system as though nothing's changed over the past few generations.

All of which brings me to a guy my wife and I used to know and dine with quite often: Let's call him Jim. Jim wasn't in the restaurant business, but he was a knowledgeable diner and passionate foodie. He ate out several nights a week, wrote his own restaurant review newsletter, and attended the James Beard Awards, where he sat in rapt attention and star gazed at all the chefs ... his version of going to the Oscars.

Jim had what I thought was the single most prudent and egalitarian restaurant review system I've ever known, and the wisdom and prescience of it has only come into greater relief in recent years. Rather than dole out stars, he approached every dining experience with the premise that each restaurant was innocent, on all fronts, until proven guilty. Thus, they began with a perfect score of 100, whether they were a casual neighborhood joint or an elegant fine-dining temple.

From there, Jim took away points for anything from quality of the food and service to the wine list to cleanliness. A surly reservationist might even cost the place a point or two. At the end of his meal, he did the simple math and wrote his review, with the restaurant accorded a numerical score at the end.

The brilliant thing about this approach, it seemed to me, was how democratic it was. Jim didn't group restaurants into one of four star categories (five if you counted "no stars). He took each one on its own terms and, essentially, graded it.

Here's a useful comparison: A few years ago, in New York City, the Health Department began assigning health-inspection grades to restaurants. Their method offers a perfect illustration of why a numerical or letter-grade review system might make more sense than what we have now: To put it in the most extreme terms possible, Per Se and the corner diner might both receive an A from the Health Department, but nobody would ever confuse the two establishments.

The same would be true with a numerical reviewing system: Based on the text of the review itself, the restaurant's website, and such factors as price point, nobody would confuse two very different restaurants that were accorded the same grade, the way they are prone to grouping those that are accorded the same number of stars. (I like the idea of a number system because it allows for specificity, but for those who like things more streamlined, it's easy enough to convert numbers to letters, just like they do it in school: 90 to 100 is an A, 80 to 90 is a B, and so on down the line.)

Stars are simple. This era of dining is not. Whether it's a numerical score, letter grade, or some other innovation, it's time for a change that reflects the times. Things are only going to get more complicated from here.