Time to Suspend Sietsema’s Star Power

Posted: February 28, 2019

[NOTE:  With the publication of the Fall 2022 Dining Guide, Tom announced that he would not be going back to using stars.]

For the past two weeks, the Washington Post chief restaurant critic Tom Sietsema reminded me why I started this site.  D.C. is going through a golden age of dining.  It is exciting to document it.  In addition, I believe that the dominant outlet/critic for the city was slow to capture the moment and continues to under-estimate some of the innovative, interesting, and important things happening.  Due to the prominence of his position and the power of his voice, this had a disproportionate impact.  I wanted to advocate for those places that he missed the boat on.  Now, multiple data points over the last couple days point to an additional conclusion.  He should stop dispensing stars when reviewing.

In back-to-back reviews, he has low-balled with mere 2 star ratings two places that deserve better.  First, Primrose, which to be fair Sietsema was generous in his write-up even if he was stingy with the stars.  Second, posted yesterday, was a review of Reverie. I concede Reverie is expensive and the food can cross the line from interesting to challenging.  Reverie is also off-the-beaten path and it is unlikely someone would go there without understanding what they are getting. Yet I feel that Sietsema is discounting its creativity by focusing on the risks of such an approach.  Many of us would gladly accept that risk and embrace a restaurant more for trying.

Putting aside my frustration with the low-balling of these two restaurants, the fact that Sietsema was excited about Primrose and less-than-thrilled with Reverie does not show up in the rating.  They got the same exact rating.  Two sets of two stars lead in two different directions and both lead the reader astray.

Coincidentally, the James Beard semifinalist list came out yesterday.  Among those selected from D.C. are several consensus greats: Jaleo (Outstanding Restaurant), Komi (Outstanding Restaurant), Ellē (Best New Restaurant), Rasika (Outstanding Chef), Marcel’s (Outstanding Service) and Fiola (Outstanding Chef).  The list also includes some that Sietsema initially low-balled and had to revise.  Rising Star Chef nominee Kwame Onwuachi of Kith and Kin, Sietsema initially rated 1.5 stars, but then soon revised to 2.5  (not all restaurants are able to get a revision so quickly).  On the Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region list is Amy Brandwein of Centrolina (initial rating of 2.5 finally raised to 3.0 just last year).  There are two other chefs that he may yet have to revise like Haidar Karoum of Chloe (2.5 stars), and Erik Bruner-Yang of Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English.  Both rated 2.5.  Spoken English also was a semifinalist for best new restaurant in America.  How so many chefs and restaurants can get such national acclaim and still be floating in the netherworld of 2.5 stars is befuddling.

Tim Carman, the other restaurant reviewer at the Post, also had a review this week in which he gushed about a new outpost of the great Taqueria Habanero.  Carman does not have the power to dispense stars.  If he did, he might have awarded enough to Habanero to form a constellation.  Why places Carman reviews don’t get stars and the ones Sietsema reviews do get stars is no longer explainable.

One last data point.  Soleil Ho, the new restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, announced that she would not be using a star rating system.  She will rely on her prose to point diners in the right direction. From her short piece explaining the decision:

“I’m sure other critics have very involved parameters and formulas for deciding whether a restaurant deserves two or three stars, but honestly, I don’t. I don’t hold myself to be an objective authority on restaurants who can accurately quantify the experience for you.

“When I review restaurants, I’m talking about their context, how they exist in the world. I want to describe the images and feelings restaurateurs and chefs produce in me with the choices they make with their menus, architecture, marketing and music, to share the experiences I’ve had in restaurants with you in fresh and interesting ways.”

As an Eater SF story notes, Ho is the latest of several prominent critics to dispense with a rating system.

It is time for the Washington Post to follow lead of Ho and others.  In an age where avant-garde places like Reverie and obvious crowd-pleasers like Le Diplomate each operate in the same world (let alone great hole-in-the walls like Taqueria Habanero), awarding stars against some white-tablecloth standard is less than helpful and arguably destructive.

On our site, we tried to come up with a rating standard that gauged enthusiasm of the recommendation rather than matching some objective criteria of fanciness.  That can still seem awkward in application, but it is better than these star-crossed reviews.