Why try to pretend that restaurant star ratings are anything but subjective? How do critics decide between 2.5 and 3 stars? When San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer recently tried to explain his mathematical formula, readers were skeptical. Said Bauer:

In assigning stars, I try to start with a fairly objective procedure. Food is the most important component—in fact, it counts twice as much as everything else. In figuring the overall score, I double the rating for food (3.5+3.5=7 stars), add the ambience (2.5) and the service (3), which gives a total of 12.5 stars. I then divide by 4, which means it comes in a little over 3 stars. While it’s the reviewer’s decision to assign the final number of stars, when the food is higher than the other elements, we tend to bump up the stars.

“That’s almost as convoluted as how your credit card’s interest rate is figured out,” one poster responded. Another protested that the star ratings were inconsistent, noting that, “The most frequent problem I have with star ratings in restaurant reviews is that the specifics of the review don’t seem to correspond to the ultimate star rating.”

New York Times critic Frank Bruni admitted star ratings are more art than science when he wrote, “There are no assigned percentages for food versus service versus ambience. The star ratings take into consideration all of those elements, giving primary importance to food, to come to a conclusion about how excited I would be to return to the restaurant. The number of stars chart ever greater degrees of excitement.”

The press release for the new Michelin Guide describes its star rating system this way: “[T]he same five criteria are used for awarding stars in all countries: product quality, preparation and flavors, the cuisine’s personality, value for money and consistency.”

Well, that clears things right up.

What do you think ––are stars useful, or reductive?

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