At a public meet and greet hosted by the SF Chronicle, incoming critic Soleil Ho announced that restaurant reviews would no longer include a star rating. The stars, a hallmark of many reviews (including Eater SF’s discontinued reviews and those of its NY brethren), were used as a benchmark of success for Bay Area restaurants throughout Michael Bauer’s tenure of over 30 years.
Speculation that Ho, who will not be anonymous, would banish stars had been swirling throughout the industry. Now that it’s confirmed, how will it affect restaurants and diners?
Restaurateurs in attendance immediately took to social to announce the news, which some, like chef Tu David Phu, heralded as a step in the right direction. “It’s giving power back to the consumers, your diners will tell you which are the best restaurants in the Bay Area,” said Phu in a comment recorded on Instagram.
“I think by the Chronicle doing this it levels the playing field,” Phu tells Eater SF. “In terms of high end versus low end, hole-in-the-wall places and two-Michelin-starred restaurants.”
Pete Kane, both editor-in-chief of SF Weekly and its critic, does not use stars to rate restaurants he’s critiquing. And down South, Jonathan Gold, the late and beloved food critic for the LA Times, was also known for disavowing stars after he took over for his predecessor, S. Irene Virbila.
“I think people cared about the stars, sure, but Gold not giving stars definitely took away a little bit of his authority at first,” says Matthew Kang, editor for Eater LA. “Eventually, because of his reputation and ability to write, people didn’t care as much about the stars. Plus, Gold was rarely ever truly critical (negative) with just a few exceptions (like Majordomo) so stars weren’t really a part of his approach to writing reviews.”
“I think the bigger thing was, it wasn’t about how many stars something had but here’s something special and you should go check it out,” says Phu. “I feel that’s where food should go and it welcomes other people and other platforms serving food, other than just restaurants.”
While many of the restaurants that weren’t previously considered for starred reviews may be glad to hear that the playing field has been leveled, high-end restaurants whose patrons often dine out for sport — those who check Michelin-starred restaurants off lists regularly — may not be as enthused.
“I think there are restaurants, especially at the higher-end in terms of cost and luxury, that will miss the opportunity for a clear superlative to point to,” says Hillary Dixler Canavan, restaurant editor for Eater National. “A star count — particularly when a restaurant earns the most stars available — is a definitive signal about quality that when you’re asking guests to pay hundreds of dollars for a meal can grant instant credibility.”
That won’t mean that high-end restaurants won’t be reviewed, just that they won’t have shiny stars to boast about (or a dearth of them to bemoan). Ho’s first reviews will include La Folie, Nyum Bai, La Calenda (Thomas Keller’s new Mexican restaurant) in addition to what she says are “Some pretty wonderful Chinese American restaurants.”
Stay tuned for more on San Francisco’s bright, new, star-less world as Ho’s initial reviews hit newsstands this weekend.