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Why Craig LaBan’s restaurant review bell ratings won’t return

A reader recently wrote to me about a disappointing experience at a restaurant I’d written favorably about with a two bell (“very good”) review in 2019.

“I am really surprised that the quality could have gone downhill so much since your review… could you comment?”

Just a comment? How about a book?

I wasn’t at this dinner, so I can’t speak to the shortcomings of her meal (her take: “the risotto was porridge, the chef was rude”). Bad attitude and bad food are definitely still on my list of undesirable dining outcomes. But the expectation that a rated review from the Before Times in 2019 still had any relevance is what most caught my attention. As if we haven’t just been living through a two-and-a-half year episode of Restaurant Survivor.

I don’t know a single restaurant that hasn’t been significantly altered by the challenges of the pandemic. We may be eating out again and it may often feel like the experiences we used to have. But virtually nothing is the same behind the scenes. Most restaurants are short-staffed and struggling to hang on to their existing employees. The cost of ingredients is more. The mental stress has taken a lasting toll on hospitality in 2022.

That doesn’t mean restaurants get a free pass. But the extraordinary circumstances account for why I’ve refrained from adding bell-ratings to reviews since March 20, 2020. That’s when I gave three (“excellent”) bells to Canal House, complete with recipes for what some thought at the time was going to be just a few weeks off from dining out. But the crisis lingered. Once restaurants tentatively reopened and I began writing critical reviews again in June, 2021, I decided to still hold off on reviving the bells. How to judge these places against rating standards established over two-plus decades of steady precedence? It did not seem fair. Not when each rating would be attached to a pandemic asterisk.

Our wait for the old “normal” has yet to end. And the question of rebooting restaurant ratings has lingered. The New York Times returned to its starred ratings in June. The Boston Globe this month announced its ratings revival, too. But I’ve come to the opposite conclusion – and decided to silence our bells for good. Letters from readers like the one I’ve just noted only reaffirm that a rating system rooted in the pre-pandemic era no longer applies meaningfully to today’s mercurial restaurant world. And now’s the opportunity for change. I’m not alone, as the Washington Post also said goodbye to its rating system earlier this month.

My reasons are multiple. But the primary motivation for ending the Liberty Bell rating system I created for The Inquirer is the same as when I first rang them with 24 years ago: to be more useful to readers.

Quite simply, ratings have less value now that their staying power is so quickly outdated. And we now also have a better alternative with more focused, time-sensitive coverage of the sort we provide in our annual dining guide, with my regularly updated Top 10 and other helpful lists. I’ll continue to craft different variations of those lists reframing our dining scene throughout the year, along with my regular in-depth weekly reviews.

»READ MORE: Which restaurants are on Craig LaBan’s Top 10 list?

Ratings work best as a supplement to distill the bottom line of a nuanced review. But keeping an extensive catalog of them current has always been daunting, because ratings live on well beyond their companion articles, often for years between visits, and always without context. Before the pandemic, there was at least some measure of continuity to extend their utility. But with the constant turmoil small businesses have endured over the past few years, the shelf life on something as simplistic as a number grade is too fleeting to capture a restaurant world more dynamic and unpredictable than ever. It feels counterproductive to even try.

A definitive shift away from bells is not automatic for me, as someone who’d always advocated for ratings. I got started as a newspaper restaurant critic with an existing rating system at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and I appreciated how its tally of red beans, a nod to the famous NOLA dish, localized ratings in a way to avoid the preconceived notions that came with typical stars. That’s why Liberty Bells were the ideal choice for Philadelphia when I convinced The Inquirer to launch its scale in 1998, joining most every other major publication in the practice of rating restaurants.

The bells were useful then in establishing standards and a sense of order to a region in the midst of a major restaurant boom. The Zagat survey’s inscrutable 30-point system was then the only competitor in the restaurant ratings game. But since the early aughts, technology has changed the character of ratings with the online phenomenon of Yelp’s crowdsourced reviews – and the inevitable grade inflation I always tried to resist. Who goes to a restaurant now rated less than four stars on Yelp? And I have no doubt Michelin’s stars are now lurking around Philly’s corner. The flood of user-driven stars now attached to everything from Amazon for books to OpenTable and Resy for restaurants, and Uber for transportation and food delivery (where drivers get to rate you), the numbing effect and dilution of ratings in our wider culture is complete.

Nonetheless, I continued rating restaurants because within the bubble of Philadelphia, they still worked. Consistency over the years reinforced that two bells really was a “very good” recommendation, and both readers and restaurants knew that’s what it meant. For restaurants already edging into the highest tiers, like Friday Saturday Sunday, the steady quest for four bells served as some motivation, as noted by the three bells currently hanging in their front window with a space making room for one more. Few places had earned it as much as Chad and Hanna Williams’ restaurant by the eve of the pandemic, when ratings were put on pause. And considering their ability to continue evolving and improving since, I would not be opposed to them hanging that final bell. And yet, I still don’t have any higher compliments for a restaurant than words, as noted in this year’s dining guide: “Is there a more complete fine-dining destination in Philly than Friday Saturday Sunday? Nowhere else right now delivers a more singular experience. “

The ratings were never perfect, of course. No number of icons can totally encapsulate a complete restaurant experience. No uniform scale can fully equalize the apples-to-oranges comparisons of places serving various communities and genres with differing missions and measures of excellence.

Those are just a few of the points critics like Soleil Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle and Carlos Frías of the Miami Herald made when they did away with ratings at their respective papers in early 2019. I still wasn’t ready to move on.

But the pandemic has changed everything with its deep disruption of that continuity. And it provided me a reason to pause, and an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective. It’s been liberating to write about dining experiences for over the past year without having to assign a number grade – one that now may no longer be valid in six months. Subscribers have been reading more deeply into the reviews. And if rating systems were strained before to accommodate diverse dining styles, the pandemic’s bumper crop of takeout operations, collaborations, mobile food vendors, and pop-up projects make something as static as a rating even less natural.

And I now realize my attitude has been shifting away from ratings ever since we first launched the Inquirer’s annual dining guides seven years ago. They’ve provided the opportunity to regularly step back and assess the dining scene as a whole beyond my weekly reports on the latest new restaurants. And when I sit down to name my Top 10 based on recent revisits, my final mix of favorites has rarely reflected the fine dining hierarchy that even the most thoughtful ratings subtly reinforce.

The 10 are not ranked. Each one occupies a unique and special place on that list. There are still special occasion destinations on the list, for sure. But there are also more approachable expressions of restaurant excellence, too, including several more casual sibling projects from previous four-bell winners that better reflect how we currently use restaurants every day.

Our coverage should mirror that world without feeling the pressure of a rating system pulling in the other direction. And since those ratings have lost their useful luster over the past few years, it’s time now to move forward, and leave the bells behind.

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