Who’s number one?
Restaurant rankings are a relatively new measure of gastronomic greatness.
Reviewers always rated restaurants, often using the shorthand of 3 stars or 2 forks, thumbs up or down, going back a century to the first Michelin guides. Then Zagat came along with its 30-point rating scale that moved us away from entire classes of restaurants toward individual glory, and a decade ago we got the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the list that made household names out of Spain’s elBulli and Copenhagen’s Noma, and has quickly become a dominant player in global media coverage of the industry. Most of the user-submitted review sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open Table, and Trip Advisor use a combination, aggregating and averaging the individual ratings to create best of and top ten lists.
Ratings and rankings are not interchangeable.
Both methods have their proponents, and both have their inherent flaws.
Ratings ask you how much you like it.
In theory, everyone is using a common scale of measurement, and applying that scale to different dining experiences with consistency. Of course the reality is something very different: reviews reflect the critics’ quirks, biases, and grudges. Their health, the weather, their mood, even the outfit they’re wearing can affect how a meal strikes their fancy on any particular day. Ratings don’t require a unique score for each restaurant and there’s a tendency to cluster the scores in a very narrow distribution. Researchers have also found that response styles differ systematically by culture, for instance Indians tend toward more extreme scores, both good and bad, while most Asian respondents are more moderate, and French reviewers tend to be be more positive than the less-generous Dutch.
Rankings ask you to compare it with all the others.
In their simplest form, rankings can feel very natural. We all have a basic impulse to make comparisons—it’s easy to distinguish a preference for pound cake over angel food, or to say that you like In-N-Out burgers better than Five Guys. But what if you’re choosing between pound cake and blueberry pie and rice pudding and mango sorbet and chocolate chip cookies? Or a French brasserie, an Italian trattoria, a steakhouse, and those same burger joints? Rankings can get difficult in a hurry.
It’s much more taxing to rank a group of restaurants than to rate them. Psychologists say that when you get past three choices most people start to get sloppy and even arbitrary with rankings. While the cognitive effort required to rate a group of restaurants is linear—the same mental process is independently repeated for each—the work of rank-order reviews rises almost exponentially since each additional choice has to be compared to every other one on the list. Once a list tops seven entries, the whole process can go off the rails.
Good food is subjective.
The ratings and rankings of restaurant reviews have their place, but there’s no substitute for a place at the table. Dining experiences are shaped by individual genetics and gender, historical and cultural influences, mood, emotions, context, and hunger. Reviews can create expectations and even guide the experience, but no two people can ever truly taste in the same way.