Flagging: Time to End Star Ratings?

Picture: 19th Century U.S. Navy Commodore Broad Pennant.  A rank flag without stars.

In his most recent review – a glowing take on Rooster and Owl – Washington Post chief restaurant critic Tom Sietsema reminded us that he tends to low-ball new restaurants when awarding stars.  Last month, I wrote a post, “Time to Suspend Sietsema’s Star Power,” making the case for getting rid of “star” ratings after Sietsema low-balled two places I really like.  I’m flagging the post in light of Sietsema’s recent review and statements.

Here are the key grafs from this week’s review:

“LOVE Rooster & Owl,” a friend with great taste texted me after she tried the restaurant in its first week. “Come with 4 pple so you can have everything. 4 stars out of the gate. Seriously.”

I’ve never given any area restaurant my highest rating out of the gate, preferring to see how they settle in over time, but I can understand my friend’s animal enthusiasm. Tang sets a high bar for himself. Familiar as some of the combinations read on paper, none of them dip below very good. There’s an ocean of crudo out there, but the kanpachi lapped with coconut milk and dappled with lime leaves and grapefruit at Rooster & Owl tastes wholly fresh. Gnocchi staged with shiitakes and preserved lemon is so ethereal, I glance up from my plate to see if Fabio Trabocchi or Amy Brandwein has momentarily slipped into Tang’s Batman Crocs.

Sietsema gave Rooster and Owl three stars, putting in on par with Brandwein’s Centrolina and Trabocchi’s recent (in D.C) Del Mar.  Del Mar started at three stars, but Centrolina languished with two and half until getting bumped up recently.  As someone on Twitter pointed out, Sietsema did give Pineapple & Pearls four stars in his first full review, so he can be overtaken by generosity in an initial review.

In a recent online Ask Tom session, he explained his method:

Briefly, what I aim to do is to compare apples to apples: French bistros with French bistros, Italian trattorias with Italian trattorias, sushi joints with sushi joints, etc. Food counts for roughly half the rating, service and ambience for the rest. In all honesty, I’d rather grade low and have readers think me miserly than grade high and have them think of me as over-generous.

His position is intellectually defensible, although Sietsema seems to overlook the option of just “grading” rather than leaning high or low.  But it is frustrating when it means Sushi Taro (three stars), The Dabney (started at two 1/2!!!, now three stars), and Kinship (three stars) rate the same as The Salt Line (three stars) and All Purpose (was three, until most recent dining guide knocked it down to two 1/2 without explanation).  There are a few of us that understand Kinship is probably being compared to Marcel’s and All Purpose to 2 Amys.  Most, however, are going to think that giving a pizza joint and a fine-dining temple the same rating makes no sense because Michelin and the NY Times have conditioned us otherwise.

On this site, we tried to come up with a rating standard that gauged enthusiasm of the recommendation rather than matching some objective criteria of fanciness (and that still seems awkward at times). Many prominent critics, including Soleil Ho, the new restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, stopped using a star rating system.  It is time to darken the star ratings in Washington too.