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On Restaurant Ratings and Top 10 Lists

January 25, 2013

A few thoughts on restaurant ratings: Since 1933, the Michelin Guide has used a rating system of 1 to 3 stars to connote what the guide considers to be high quality cooking at restaurants. Opponents of the guide's system criticize the vagueness of the categories' criteria, a lack of definition to the stars. I would argue that it is precisely this vagueness of Michelin's categories is what makes them more sound in regards to judging matters of taste. In an increasingly specialized world, where we know more and more about a particular skill set or field, yet less and less about all other subjects besides our particular niche, we see more and more Top 10 Lists and other specific numerically ranked ratings of all sorts: Top 10 Cities to Live Under a Bridge, Top 10 Gluten-Free Lipsticks, Top 10 Gas Station Bathrooms in Missouri. This is a symptom of a culture increasingly concerned with rank (due to its lack of expertise in what was once considered general knowledge), yet can you rank food in such a manner? For instance, take the wine world's Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate's 100-point rating system. Much criticism has been weighed against this system for over categorizing something as subjective as wine. What is the criteria that differentiates between a 94 point wine and 96 point wine? If there is a 2 percent difference, is that perceptible, and if it is perceptible, is it relevant? I direct more ire and frustration towards a critique system that uses a "Top "Insert Number Here" numerical hierarchy--such as the World's 50 Best Restaurant List published by Restaurant magazine--than towards Michelin's 1,2,3 system. Is El Celler de Can Roca 21 restaurants better than Restaurant Vendôme? Why is L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris at No. 12 when none of his other restaurants make the list? Why is Heston Blumenthal's earth-shatteringly important The Fat Duck listed four positions below his own satellite London hotel restaurant? Has anybody even actually eaten at Fäviken?! It's in Sweden for godssake! That's a whole 'nother blog post. But I digress. Personally, Good, Better, and Best is how I judge most things, and that is essentially what the Michelin system has been set up to define. Do I think that some 3-star Michelin restaurants are better than others? Yes, but that might just reflect my personal opinion. And while others would argue otherwise, I do believe that there is a relevantly defined difference between 1 stars and 2 stars, and 2 stars and 3 stars. And at the end of the day, Michelin itself is merely a representation of a few people's opinions. What I appreciate here is that Michelin doesn't attempt to rank restaurants numerically beyond 1, 2,and 3 and that that lack of definition is precisely what makes the rating more true. It acknowledges that there is such a thing as good, superior and superlative cooking, but it does not attempt to further categorize something that by it's very nature is ever...

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