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Monday, September 12, 2005

Trend Lines in The Chronicle's Ratings of Bay Area Restaurants

As I explained in a recent post, the lead food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle – Michael Bauer – periodically undertakes a comprehensive review of the Bay Area's best restaurants in order to determine which of them deserve a 4-star rating.   Bauer recently announced the results of his most recent reevaluation, and the restaurants that came out on top were The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, Chez Panisse, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa, and Campton Place.   I thought that it might be interesting now to take a look at some trend lines to see how the restaurants in, or near, the top-tier have fared under Bauer.   Keep in mind that I do not necessarily agree with all of Bauer's conclusions, but I do believe it is worth considering his views given the influence that he has on the local market.

A logical place to start the analysis is November 2000, which is the last time that Bauer conducted one of his fine dining reviews.   That time around, the restaurants that emerged with 4 stars were as follows:

The Chronicle's Four-Star Restaurants
as of November 2000
(Restaurant/Executive Chef)
The French LaundryThomas Keller
Fleur de LysHubert Keller
La FolieRoland Passot
Chez PanisseAlice Waters
Charles Nob HillRon Siegel
Fifth FloorGeorge Morrone
AquaMichael Mina

The first four entrants on this list obviously survived with their 4-star ratings in tact right up to, and through, Bauer's most recent review.   The remaining three, however, underwent significant changes after November 2000 and ended up losing their 4-star ratings along the way.   Ron Siegel left Charles Nob Hill for Masa's in late 2000, and his replacement – Melissa Perello – received only 3.5 stars from The Chronicle.   Shortly after she announced her departure from the restaurant in late 2004, Charles Nob Hill closed for good and was subsequently reincarnated as the steakhouse C&L.   George Morrone resigned from Fifth Floor in 2001 and was replaced by Laurent Gras, who garnered only 3 stars from Bauer.   Melissa Perello took over when Gras departed late last year, but she, too, was recently given the same rating.   And when Michael Mina left Aqua in late 2002, Laurent Manrique assumed lead duties in the kitchen and eventually earned a 3.5 star rating.

Now, given the frequency with which Bay Area restaurants change executive chefs, one might be tempted to ask whether it makes sense to analyze trend lines for restaurant ratings at all.   After all, can any conclusion really be drawn from pointing out that Bauer gave a particular establishment three steadily increasing ratings, if this occurred under three different chefs?   The answer, I believe, is yes.   Even when changes at the top of the kitchen have occurred, the ratings history for a restaurant is instructive for two reasons.   First, it reflects useful information about the establishment's owners.   For example, if a restaurant has gone through a succession of chefs but has steadily received higher and higher ratings, this almost certainly indicates a firm commitment by the owners to invest the time - and the money - to attract top talent.   Second, a trend line shows Bauer's predisposition toward a given restaurant.   If Bauer issues a series of increasingly glowing reviews about a restaurant which then subsequently changes chefs, chances are that he will go into his next meal inclined to believe that the owners have hired an equally talented new chef.   Thus, for both of these reasons, trend lines can be at least suggestive of future ratings - even if the chef is ultimately replaced.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
The following table shows the performance over time of restaurants in or near the top-tier, as determined by Bauer.   Next to each restaurant name are three columns;   the left column contains the rating that the restaurant had as of November 2000, the column on the far right identifies the rating the restaurant has today, and the middle column identifies any ratings that Bauer issued for the restaurant in the intervening time period.

Selected Restaurant Ratings from The San Francisco Chronicle
November 2000 - September 2005
RestaurantNov. 2000
Sep. 2005
The French Laundry4.0--4.0
Fleur de Lys4.04.04.0
La Folie4.04.04.0
Chez Panisse4.0--4.0
Campton Place2.53.0     3.54.0
The Dining Room
at the Ritz-Carlton
Masa's2.53.5     3.53.5
One Market3.03.53.5
Gary Danko3.5--3.5
Michael Mina--3.53.5
Fifth Floor4.03.03.0
Charles Nob Hill4.03.5closed

A review of the above data reveals a number of interesting groupings and trends.   At the top are the four restaurants that have maintained a 4-star rating continuously from November 2000 up through the present - The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie and Chez Panisse.   It's worth noting that among the four, only Fleur de Lys and La Folie were awarded the top rating three distinct times during the relevant period – a particularly impressive feat given that both Hubert Keller and Roland Passot significantly overhauled their menus.   Next up are the three newest inductees into the 4-star class – The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa and Campton Place.   The Dining Room was stalled at 3.5 stars for several years, until Ron Siegel came along and finally elevated the restaurant into the top tier.   Manresa has the distinction of making the biggest single-review leap, from 3 to 4 stars.   But the award for most remarkable feat goes to Campton Place, which moved from 2.5 stars to 4 stars – in 0.5-star increments – over the course of four consecutive reviews.

Turning next to the restaurants that presently sit at 3.5 stars, one can readily see three subcategories.   The first are those that have risen to this level during the past five years, namely Masa's and Acquerello (both of which started at 2.5 stars) and One Market (which started at 3 stars).   Momentum alone suggests that these restaurants may be elevated to Bauer’s top rating at some point down the road, and Masa's, in particular, seems like a prime candidate based upon what Bauer has written.   The second group is comprised of restaurants that have been "stuck" at 3.5 stars for some time.   Gary Danko, Jardiniere, Farallon and Terra have been there for five years, while Michael Mina has been at 3.5 stars since it opened just over a year ago.   While it's theoretically possible that Bauer could raise any one of these establishments to 4 stars at some future date, my guess is that the only ones with a realistic shot in Bauer's book are Michael Mina and possibly Terra.   Finally, Aqua, Fifth Floor and the now-defunct Charles Nob Hill all saw ratings drop off with the departure of a prominent chef - i.e., Michael Mina, George Morrone and Ron Siegel, respectively.   Interestingly, two of these three restaurants – Aqua and Charles Nob Hill – are properties belonging to the Aqua Development Corporation.

The following table shows the same data from a slightly different angle, by grouping the restaurants into those with upward momentum, those that are holding relatively steady, and those with downward momentum:

Trend Lines in The Chronicle's Restaurant Ratings
Upward MomentumManresa
The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton
Campton Place
One Market
Holding SteadyThe French Laundry
Fleur de Lys
La Folie
Chez Panisse
Gary Danko
Michael Mina
Downward MomentumAqua
Fifth Floor
Charles Nob Hill

The French Laundry, Fleur de Lys, La Folie and Chez Panisse have obviously attained stability with Bauer, no doubt aided by the fact that each of these restaurants has had the same executive chef for many years.   So, the real question now is whether The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Manresa and Campton Place will be able to hold on to their 4-star ratings going forward, and whether Masa's, One Market or Acquerello will be able to ride existing momentum to break into the top tier.   My guess is that Masa's will be the only one that is able to make the leap.   Michael Mina has a chance of being elevated at some point down the road as well, as Mr. Mina's history and accomplishments here in the Bay Area demonstrate that he is talented.   But I suspect that Mina will have to shake things up a bit at the restaurant in order to get Bauer to change his assessment.   And Terra – though it has been at 3.5 stars for many years – may well enjoy renewed interest and life when executive chef Hiro Sone opens Ame in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco later this year, perhaps giving Terra another chance to attain 4-star status.   Finally, only time will tell whether Aqua and Fifth Floor can turn things around and recapture some of their past glory.   While I believe that Aqua may end up plateauing at its current 3.5-star rating for some time to come, Fifth Floor should be able to rebound, as executive chef Melissa Perello is too talented to remain at 3 stars.

Next time, I'll take a look at how selected Bay Area chefs have fared under Bauer, this time examining trend lines in the ratings that each of them has attained while working in restaurants in or near the top tier.


Anonymous Catherine said...

An interesting perspective. Do you have any thoughts about trends in what Bauer might be looking for, beyond the obvious (service, ambiance, good food) that might underscore the way our thoughts on food and dining are evolving?

September 13, 2005 9:53 AM  
Blogger Joy said...

I am so impressed that you were able to find the time and patience to compile all of this. Bravo!

September 13, 2005 10:38 PM  
Blogger Amy Sherman said...

This is really great! I'm wondering what you think about the star rating in general. I just ate at Masa's and loved it. I think I would have given it 4 stars. But if I compare it to French Laundry it is not quite as impressive. Much more impressive than Chez Panisse though. I think having a restaurant as a standard for "4 star-ness" makes sense to me. What do you think?

September 15, 2005 8:50 PM  
Blogger NS said...

Joy: Thanks, and thank goodness that The Chronicle has Bauer's past reviews available online!

Catherine: I obviously have no way of knowing this for sure, but I suspect - based on reading Bauer's recent reviews and his article identifying the seven 4-stars - that he is growing somewhat bored with the standard French-centric cuisine that has characterized all of our top-tier restaurants in the past. For example, he has spoken very positively about: (1) chefs who are incorporating flavors and concepts from Asia and Africa into their menus, (2) the emerging trend of pairing unusual items with each other (e.g., lobster with pork), and (3) the concept of using ingredients in unexpected ways (e.g., black olive madeleines, lobster ice cream). In short, Bauer seems to be giving local chefs a green light to push envelopes and experiment with the unexpected - provided, of course, that the experiments work. I am rather surprised by all of this, because even as recently as a few years ago, Bauer seemed to be very skeptical of chefs who were willing to go out on a limb (e.g., Eric Torralba at the now-closed Antidote). I'm not exactly sure what changed for him, but I would not be surprised to see even greater innovation throughout our dining scene over the coming years.

Amy: Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for stopping by! I think that any attempt to reduce a complex, variable, and somewhat subjective experience down to a rating is obviously very difficult, but it's an exercise worth undertaking so that readers can better gauge one restaurant against others. I have long believed that 4-star systems are problematic, because there simply are not enough discrete levels to slot the full breadth of restaurants that are out there. The result is that you end up with restaurants of very different quality all getting 4's, another group of very disparate restaurants all getting 3's, and so on. This can be alleviated by using scales with greater range (e.g., 10 or 30 points), but at some point the calibration gets so fine that you run up against limitations on the ability to distinguish meaningfully between two restaurants. For example, if Bauer used a 100 point scale and said that The French Laundry is a 94 and The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton is a 93, would anybody really believe that he (or anybody else) could so precisely detect a 1-point difference in quality? I doubt it. That's probably why few try to use such highly granular systems, and it's certainly why I use a 10-point scale in reviews on this site.

I think you are quite correct in noting that, because a food critic effectively ends up evaluating any given restaurant against the other restaurants that he/she has visited, the best dining experience that a critic has had will help define what it takes to attain the top rating. Yet, I personally do not believe that it's a good idea to define one restaurant as the top of the scale, and to have all other establishments then necessarily be rated somewhere below that. This is both because the scales that are used typically do not permit differential ratings for the best and second best restaurants, and because it is a relatively rare occurrence - certainly here in the Bay Area - that there is one restaurant that is so far ahead of the pack, that it alone merits the top score.

September 18, 2005 11:08 AM  

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