Back in 2008, when New York first began attaching stars to our restaurant reviews, we called a former critic friend for advice. “Boy, are you screwed,” she said, before ticking off the usual complaints working critics tend to mutter (under their breaths and after a cocktail or two) when it comes to the thankless task of pinning an objective judgement on that most subjective of pastimes, dining in restaurants: There were already too many types of star systems in the crowded firmament; everyone knew that the most venerable, influential star systems skewed in favor of a certain snooty category of continental “gourmet” (and “expensive”) style, at the expense of other more inclusive, equally worthy genres of dining (hello, Michelin); readers would fixate on the stars instead of on the carefully crafted reviews (who knew?); you become a prisoner of your stars, and everyone hates you no matter what kind of system you devise (sigh).
What our friend didn’t bargain for, and what we didn’t bargain for, either, was the great, tectonic leveling of the New York dining world, which was already underway, and which our colleagues at the Underground Gourmet would soon begin to quantify with their own star system, designed to espouse the glories of the perfect bowl of ramen, say, or the perfect frankfurter. For the traditional, star-centric critic, however, in this changed landscape, “excellent,” or “special-trip” destinations were no longer grand French dining palaces; they were raucous downtown noodle bars and ramshackle pizza destinations out in the wilds of Bushwick, places that snooty Manhattan gourmets would never have dreamed of visiting just a few years earlier.
Anyone who’s been paying attention to the dining scene in the last decade knows that this great leveling created a similar effect in the increasingly creaky, anachronistic star systems. Suddenly, we critics who were used to doling our stars to the kind of grandiose, white-tablecloth establishments that rarely opened around the city anymore, were forced to grapple with a whole new set of knotty questions and criteria. Is there such a thing as over-attentive service? Should a popular restaurant be docked a star if, God forbid, it doesn’t take reservations? What’s more “star-worthy” in this comfort-obsessed age: a lavish (though rarely seen) plated serving of Dover sole, or the world’s finest taco?
This is why, after much deliberation, a little hand-wringing, and a tiny tinge of nostalgic sadness, we have decided to say farewell to the stars altogether in favor of a new, non-star-based numerical system that we hope will be broader and more ecumenical in scope, simpler to navigate, and more closely aligned with the way New Yorkers eat now, in this sprawling, democratic, post-gourmet dining era.
Our rating scale, from 1 (“unfortunate”) to 100 (“nirvana”), is designed take into account not just styles of dining, or categories of restaurants, but all of the hundreds of tangible and intangible factors that add up to an excellent (or terrible) dining experience. Price is important, of course, but high cost is not a mandate for the highest marks. A world-class deli can sit alongside a top-flight tasting room; astonishing pizza will be given the same weight as life-changing pho, superlative khao soi, or the most elaborate flight of caviar at the most pretentious restaurant in midtown.
Will our new ratings be any less subjective, or prone to the cranky whims of personal taste than the lofty, self-serious stars? Maybe not. But this new canvas will be larger, more descriptive, more adaptable, and, we hope, much easier to understand.
You’ll see our new system in place on reviews that appear on this site and in our magazine, as well as on a brand-new restaurant hunter we’re calling the Thousand Best (which you can read all about right here). Attentive readers will notice that numbers and listings will be updated over time, as our merry band of tasting elves revisit restaurants and bars for the stream of neighborhood roundups and lists that, more and more, are the currency of restaurant criticism in this fast-paced mobile era.
So scroll around our new master list of the finest places to eat and drink yourself silly in this greatest of all eating and drinking cities. Look for your favorite delis or neighborhood bars, or type in the name of the place you’re dying for your rich uncle to take you the next time he comes to town, and then let the inevitable debates begin.