How do you rate a restaurant?

Discussion in 'Restaurant Reviews' started by marlyn4k, Jul 6, 2004.

  1. marlyn4k

    marlyn4k

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    Presumably restaurant guides and critics the world over face the same dilemma. Is it purely a question of the food? And within that there lies the matter of ingredients, complexity, imagination, style, consistency and so on.

    Many UK web sites that review restaurants place as much emphasis on other factors such as front-of-house, the wine list, the atmosphere, the setting and naturally, the cost.

    So what makes a sensibly weighted review, and in the process something useful to the would-be customer?
     
  2. kuan

    kuan Moderator Staff Member

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    In general, only one thing, and that is whether the restaurant meets its own expectations.

    I give McDonald's five stars because I know what to expect and they almost always deliver. But of course a Filet 'o Fish would not do too well at Alain Ducasse.

    Kuan
     
  3. pete

    pete Moderator Staff Member

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    Thank you Kuan!!! This is the point of view that I have been trying to get across to people for years. So many restaurant critics tend to confuse cost with quality (aka Charlie Trotter recieves 4 stars while the local diner only recieves one). I have always tried to measure a restaurant by what it is attempting to be. As such, many of the "best" restaurants in Chicago don't score very high, in my book, while some of the lowliest, grungiest diners score very high. It's all a matter of figuring out what a restaurant is trying to be, then evaluating it against itself. There are so many different types of restaurants out there that to do anything other than that is futile. It's like comparing apples to oranges to bananas. How can you compare those things?
     
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  4. jim berman

    jim berman

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    Good question. I almost always ground my opinion on the 'experience.' Certainly we go to a restaurant for the food becuase we are hungry. However, some attention must be paid to everything else that makes it a restaurant versus eating at home. And, yes, Mcdonald's rises to their expectation; it's just that their expectation is not set as high as some others.
    And, I agree with Pete as well. Often the 'best' restaurants are the most expensive or, conversely, there are dives ranked with some high-end places. They are not comparable. The true measure is to ask: Do they hit their mark?
     
  5. headless chicken

    headless chicken

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    If the food has good quality within a price range, then its a winner IMO.
     
  6. suzanne

    suzanne

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    Ah, the eternal debate among people who love to eat in restaurants!

    Here's my list:
    • Food, of course -- are the ingredients the best quality the place can get for their appropriate price point? Are those ingredients treated with respect? Does the kitchen know when to "enhance" something and when to leave it alone? Are the portions/plating appropriate to the concept, the abilities of the staff, and the price point?
    • Responsiveness and knowledge of servers -- are they there when I need them and otherwise not intrusive? Can they answer all my questions about the food and drink? And if they can't, do they try to find the answers on a timely basis?
    • Wine list, other beverages (especially coffee and tea) -- are there items in a reasonable price range that I expect to go well with my food? If I need help because I am unfamiliar with what's offered (food, wine, or both), is it offered graciously and fully? Are there other interesting beverages available (I don't ALWAYS want wine)? Is the coffee good (by my standards, of course)? Is there a good selection of tea, REAL tea, available?
    • Noise level -- ambient, as well as from music and/or nearby or not so nearby conversations: Can I concentrate on my food/drink/companion(s) without aural distraction? If we want to talk, can we do so without shouting? Am I forced to listen to other peoples' conversations?
    • Decor and furnishings -- are they distracting, or do they enhance the experience? Am I physically comfortable?
    • Restrooms -- clean? Well-stocked with the necessities? Comfortable?
    • Hello and goodbye -- am I acknowledged at both ends, with a pleasant greeting and a pleasant farewell, in a timely fashion?
    • In general -- If the place is clearly trying to make me say "Wow," should it be, given everything else? And does it succeed, or does it make me say "Why??"
    • If I'm a repeat customer -- is the place as consistent as possible on all of the above?
    • And down at the very end -- Does the place fulfill all of the above as I think it should, all things considered, at an appropriate price point? Do I feel it's all worth what I'm paying, whether a lot, a little, or something in between?
     
  7. marlyn4k

    marlyn4k

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    Suzanne makes the point brilliantly. T

    To guide a would-be customer - and after all that is the role of the reviewer/critic - each of those elements should be addressed.

    If the review is open prose covering those factors then the reader can attach their own weightings. For example, depending upon my mood, I would be prepared to sacrifice some quality in kitchen output for setting and service because that would fit with my criteria for the desired 'experience'.

    However, reading the Guides available in the UK, (Michelin, The Good Food Guide, The AA Guide) they cover only a fraction of these points.

    Instead the Guides prefer to focus on a rating; One Star, 6/10 or Three Rosettes. How should the reader presume these have been derived? What weighting has been given to those important parameters of the dining experience so expertly raised by Suzanne?

    Would it therefore make sense for such publications to present their criteria as strongly as their ratings?
     
  8. pumpkingrl

    pumpkingrl

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    Check out, Eating My Words, by Mimi Sheraton. She used to write for the NY Times as a food critic and many other notable publications. She dedicates practically a whole chapter to this issue. Very interesting read.
     
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  9. foodpump

    foodpump

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    For me, one of the most important things is how the critic/reviewer is compensated for his/her work.......

    If the critic is paid by a publisher or website, then I will take the time to read the review.

    If the critic makes no mention of how he/she is compensated, I ignore it.

    For a small operator like me, I get requests frequently from reviewers wanting to write about me.  Why do they e-mail me first?  Because they want to eat for free, that's why.  I always respond back, telling them that the blog/article must have the sentence "this article was partially sponsored by "X" included.  They always decline....

    O.T.O.H. the "legitimate"  reviewers come as they please.  They do a fair job. 
     
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  10. dustindacook

    dustindacook

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    I will usually hit a place a minimum of three times before I even think about reviewing it. Sometimes, places are just having a bad day, the kitchen is in the weeds or they are short staffed. If I see the same thing every single time though, that is indicative of a trend. That being said, here is what I look for in a good restaurant.

    1. Does the kitchen care? My first time at any place, I always get something simple. Yes, I know you can do an amazing Chicken Speidini or Veal Saltimbocca, but do you pay the same attention to detail with a Fettucini Alfredo or Spaghetti Mariniara? I know that if they can nail the simple dishes, the fancy stuff is going to be amazing.

    2. Does the front of house staff care? I was a host and server for years before I ever moved back behind the line and it really rubs me raw when I have unattentive wait staff. Talk with me and engage. You are the face of the establishment and should be selling the experience to me. Make me feel welcome and don't be stuffy about it.

    3. Cleanliness. Unbussed tables and dirty bathrooms should never be seen at any restaurant, regardless of price or location.

    4. Cost. This is really less of an issue for me than most. If I am sitting down to eat at your place, I have already looked up the menu online and have seen the prices. I know what I'm getting into when I walk in the door. The only time this one comes into play for me is if you try and sell me on, say, a $80 steak and is sucks. You are setting my expectations that this thing is going to be life changing and then you deliver something I could do better at home on my weber kettle.
     
  11. Royal Royal

    Royal Royal

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    Hi,
    Most Of time , only one thing, and that is whether the restaurant meets its own expectations.I give Thai Food five stars because I know what to expect and they almost always Tasty .
     
  12. pete

    pete Moderator Staff Member

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    I kind of agree with the part of your statement. I believe that a restaurant should be judged against what it is trying to be. So in my mind there can be 5 star greasy diners and 1 star fine dining restaurants. But I disagree with your second sentence. I would not give a restaurant 5 stars just for being Thai, or being any other cuisine. They still need to be judged against some sort of standard and, to me that is what they are trying to be. I've had a lot of great Thai food, some of it in real "holes in the wall" but I've also had a lot of crappy Thai food and they certainly don't warrant 5 stars.
     
  13. chrislehrer

    chrislehrer

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    I review a lot for TripAdvisor, and have occasionally done forays into reviewing where there are editors and the like.

    In my experience, most reviews and review sites that use a number or star system only have one comprehensive score. In this sense, it's rather like grading papers (something I've done too often to count): you have to distill everything to one grade.

    1. A diner is not graded on precisely the same scale as The French Laundry. At the same time, they both have to be within the same general framework. So does-not-meet/meets/exceeds expectations is a big factor, but cannot be the only one.

    2. How heavily to weight the non-food factors depends immensely on the forum for the review. If the forum assumes that anyplace serving any food is a "restaurant," then you have to consider whether a bar that serves decent nachos is better or worse than a high-end fine-dining restaurant. How this can make any sense has to depend on the forum. In essence, you have to think how your readers might make use of the review, which means in large part how they will relate this review to others in the same forum.

    3. Because all such factors are not only subjective (obviously) but also influenced immensely by very small independent factors (e.g., your server was horrendous and got fired for it that very night -- not a small factor to you but a small one in the total mechanism of a reasonably large establishment), you have to visit on more than one occasion. This is demonstrated beautifully by the all-too-typical TripAdvisor/Yelp/etc. review that reads, "1 star. My waitress was rude."

    4. Reviewing anything is a form of essay-writing. Your aim is to communicate a total picture of the establishment, with all the many factors explained in a complete package. This takes time, thought, and writing skill. The text of the review should explain thoroughly why you gave the score you did, and what it means. (Note that some forums, like Michelin, that do not allow full review essays like this, instead have an openly-stated and extremely complex rating system, and the reviewers are thoroughly trained in its use. If a site has neither system, you need to be very skeptical.)

    5. Ultimately, I figure that the grade means only one thing for certain: the degree to which I personally would recommend this place to someone else whom I consider a reasonably-intelligent potential patron of the establishment. For me, then, the stars read like this:

    5 -- You should definitely try this place, because I think you'll love it.
    4 -- This is a very good place, but I wouldn't necessarily drive out of my way.
    3 -- This is solid and reliable.
    2 -- Skip this place unless there are no other options, and then be cautious and skeptical about what you order.
    1 -- Skip this place at all costs.

    I give very few 5s and 1s. A 1 is a place that I really dreaded returning to, and it nevertheless disappointed me. A 5 is a place that stands out in my memory as superlative.

    So can a diner get a 5?

    I imagine so, but I've never been in one. I've never been in a diner that managed to take everything to a superlative extreme. This doesn't mean that it does odd deconstructive burgers and fries or something -- that'd be a minus for me, actually, because it'd be pretentious. But I'd have to bite into the fries and think, "holy c--p, those are seriously good fries!" It'd have to be spotlessly clean, utterly unaffected, modestly priced, and with professional, friendly, attentive FOH staff who know and perform their job perfectly. And the food would have to be superb -- for what it tries to be. In theory, such a place might exist, but we can all see just how difficult it would be to make sure it stayed that way, and especially to prevent the prices from climbing.

    Conversely, a very expensive place with a lot of creative, intricate dishes and so forth doesn't get a pass. It's unlikely such a place will get a 1, just because so much money and effort is invested in it, and it'd close quickly if it were that bad. But I am often struck by just how often a "gourmet dining" place deserves a 2. Usually it's because it's very expensive, noisy, crowded, with pretentious servers and a super-complicated not-at-all-clever menu whose dishes actually aren't all that well executed.

    A piece of advice for those looking at reviews online:

    A - Don't trust aggregate numbers unless there are many hundreds of reviews. Even then, be skeptical of anything very high. (Hundreds of 1s probably means a place that really is bad.)
    B - When considering individual reviews, ignore anyone who doesn't write a full paragraph.
    C - Ignore the word "authentic" unless there is clearly-stated information to back it up: my personal favorite was a review of a biryani place near where I live that got a glowing review from a woman who remarked that she had never been to an "Indian" restaurant of any kind before, but after many years decided finally to try one, and she found it very "authentic."
    D - If traveling in a place where you don't know the language, be wary of reviews in English. In all fairness, many of them will weight a new factor: welcoming to English-speakers. (Not a bad thing, but it does skew the reviewing.)
    E - If the site allows you to follow reviewers, do follow anyone whom you see writing full, coherent, articulate reviews, especially if there are a lot of them, and especially again if the reviewer's scoring seems to gravitate around the 3 or 4 mark. This encourages the reviewer to keep doing it.
     
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  14. chefross

    chefross

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    Oh I don't know Chris....seems like your thread was, in and of itself, a subjective opinion.
     
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  15. foodpump

    foodpump

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    My input on this subject remains the same:
    How the reviewer is compensated is just as important, or more important than the review itself.
     
  16. drirene

    drirene

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    I'm not compensated and we eat out several times a week. My reviews go on Trip Advisor.

    My criteria:
    1. The Food. Is it fresh? Delicious? Creative? (It doesn't even have to be creative if its yummy.) No off-flavors like butter that's been in the fridge too long, artificial flavors, no short-cut prepared ingredients that I can taste (and I can pretty much nail that).

    2. Consistency.

    I don't much care about anything else. My favorite place in town right now is a new style diner with a large counter and a few tables, no table cloths, some wait service, get your own water. It was opened by a chef around here who opens really yummy places and then sells them. This is his third or fourth and most casual. He's often seen chopping near the counter.
     
  17. chefross

    chefross

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    I'm always amused by food critiques. Food is so subjective that what one critique writes may seem at odds with the regular Joe going out to eat.
    At present I am in Seattle visiting family. There are so many choices here it is impossible for the average tourist to know what is good and what is bad by simply reading something from Trip Advisor for example. And for a Chef, it is even more difficult.

    We dined at a seafood restaurant last night. I'm looking at the prices on the menu, and then I'm looking around the room, at servers, atmosphere, lighting, sights and sounds, to try to pair those prices to the perceived overhead.

    6 oysters for $20.00....I can buy oysters at the store for .89 apiece.
    $24.00 for 1 King Crab leg. (...and I had to split it myself)
    $42.00 for a 7 ounce piece of fresh halibut (albeit with starch and veggie)
    $5.00 for a Cappuccino
    $12.00 for a glass of Tempranillo.

    So now, as I'm looking around the room, I see whole families, with kids, dining here. The prices are the same for them too.
    Our server was attentive, although one of our dining partners thought the server was chemically disabled because of her effusive personality. The food was amazing, creative, and perfectly executed. Here...again...IMO, which is subjective.
     
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  18. drirene

    drirene

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    Yes it is soooo subjective! I look at some Trip Advisor ratings... Five stars for places I wouldn't fathom. You know, frozen pre-battered veal thrown in the deep friar, etc. Lol!
     
  19. pete

    pete Moderator Staff Member

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    Granted, all reviews are subjective, but good reviewers attempt to be as objective as possible. And it is on the reader of that review to understand that the review he/she reads will be subjective to a point. But what is the alternative to reading reviews? If I'm in a new town and want to find some killer Pho, how else am I going to find it? There are way too many restaurants out there, and too many crappy ones that don't deserve my dollar, nor do I want to waste my time on them. Personally, I love Yelp and have rarely been steered wrong, overall. But I also tend to be "research happy" and do a lot of reading. I will look at a lot of yelp reviews for a place, both the good and the bad. Sure, there are plenty of bad reviews that are from people that either have a grudge or have no clue what they are talking about, but if you see the same complaints come up again and again, you can expect that is a real issue with the place. Same flies for great reviews. Plenty of people that don't have a clue what they are talking about, but by reading enough of them you can figure out what is legitimate and what is just noise.
     
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  20. kronin323

    kronin323

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    Yes there's other factors than just the food - there's the first impressions made when one walks in, overall atmosphere, quality of service, wait / service time, drink selection, price, even the cleanliness of the bathrooms, etc.

    And for each one of those other factors, there are people who find one or another important enough that a bad experience can be enough to prevent them from returning; people have pet peeves. So observing these aspects can have some value in a review.

    But really, what's the "make or break"? The food. Consistently good food will bring people back even if they have to put up with problems in some of those other areas. But have poor and/or inconsistent food and the business is doomed. The food should be the centerpiece of a good review because that's what people care about above all else at an eatery.

    As said, I don't really trust these "everybody's a food critic" amateur reviewer sites. You'd think a certain critical mass would average to a reliable result but unfortunately that hasn't always proven to be the case. As audience, finding a professional critic who's palate is in-line with your tastes is a great thing.