Side Bar: Pete Wells and His 2-Star Reviews

It feels so random. . .

Like many New Yorkers, I look to the The New York Times restaurant reviews for recommendations on where to eat (or not as the case may be). While there are several reviewers on staff, only one critic that gets the Restaurant Review headline and appoints the star ratings– Pete Wells. And it’s been over seven years that he has been cranking out reviews.  

I’m going to guess that it was probably after the first year or so that I realized that I had no insight into Pete Wells’ tastes and preferences.  Even today, over seven years later, I still don’t get him. It seems to me that most restaurants he reviews start and end with two stars. It is an ongoing joke in our household that whenever anyone announces a new NYT restaurant review, I would bet it got two stars.

This morning, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and actually break down the ratings since November 2011 when he took over the reigns from Sam Sifton.  It was a rather long and grueling process given some product glitches but I believe I have a reasonable guestimate for about 280 reviews*:

4 stars = 4
3 stars = 37
2 stars = 130
1 star = 96
Satisfactory = 9
Fair = 5
Poor = 1

Aha!  Two-star ratings are indeed the most popular of the seven categories, and almost half of the reviews Mr.  Wells has given fall into this bucket! My gut was rooted in reality!

Two stars for The New York Times is ‘very good’ and given the decline in popularity of formal dining and the rise of non-Western fare and fast-casual meals, it’s no surprise that the range in this category would be wide.  

How wide you ask?  Examples of two-star establishments include Superiority Burger (fast food),  Aviary (high-end bar with small plates), L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon (fine dining), Marta (rustic pizzeria) and I Sodi (Tuscan fare).

And what type of restaurants do not get two stars? Three-star or ‘excellent’ ratings have gone to a casual pizza place in Brooklyn (Razza) and a one-star or ‘good’ rating was given to Manhatta, a puzzler given that there were enough tasty dishes to offset the mediocre, and if you read the comments, I am not the only one that didn’t understand the review and how it lead to the one-star rating.

Henry gets one star but gets into the Top 10 New Restaurants of 2018 list.  Why wouldn’t this restaurant pushing African cuisine in such an interesting manner get a better rating if it’s one of the city’s best? And why didn’t other new restaurants that received higher star ratings make the list?

It’s a rhetorical question for I know I am looking for a throughline or standard around these measurements where there are none.  At the end of the day, reviews are subjective and so it goes with the territory that the weighting of variables can seem random. . . and that the overall rating can seem random.

And so this brings me to the point that while the restaurant scene has changed, the rating system for many publications have not.

I have been mulling over how to perhaps improve the rating system without having something like  Yelp reviews which for the most part, I tend to disregard.

But I will save those thoughts for another day. . .

*Restaurants that have closed are not included in the restaurant search results; and some of these reviews have had their ratings stripped making an accurate breakdown of the roughly 330 reviews by Pete Wells difficult. I did get through enough of the 50-odd closed restaurant reviews to see that two-star ratings were still popular, and one-star ratings were not going to outnumber the overall two-star total.