Deciphering Restaurant Rating Systems

Winners announcement at La Philharmonie in Paris of the Michelin Award winners.

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Thanks to the thousands of often contradictory restaurant reviews and ratings online, it can be hard to decide which restaurant to choose (and which is actually "the best"). From expert restaurant critics awarding Michelin Stars to crowd-sourced Yelp reviews, these resources are the first you should check when planning your next five-star meal.

Michelin Stars

The Michelin Star is a hallmark of fine-dining quality, and restaurants around the world tout their Michelin Star status. Highly authoritative, trained restaurant critics eat anonymously in order to give an unbiased review of the dining establishment. The recipients of the stars tend to be high-end, haute cuisine, and mostly French, so expect the crème de la crème. Michelin also only publishes reviews in three U.S. cities: San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.

Forbes Travel Guide

Forbes Travel Guide, formerly Mobil Guide, sends out anonymous inspectors to thousands of restaurants across the world and evaluates restaurants based on more than 800 criteria. Reviews are by anonymous experts, but far more detailed than the Michelin Stars. However, the checklist approach may exclude a restaurant from a higher diamond rating based on things that foodies don't necessarily care about, such as the availability of parking.

AAA Diamonds

The American Automobile Association (AAA or Triple A) reviews more than 30,000 North American restaurants per year and hands out one to five AAA Diamonds to these restaurants, based on an anonymous inspector's review of the restaurant. AAA reviews a huge variety of restaurants, from fast food establishments to high-end dining spots.


Zagat compiles real people's reviews using an independent tallying agency. Scores are compiled on a 0 to 30 point scale and the reviews tend to be more personal, with comments describing each person's individual experience. Google incorporates Zagat's ratings into its searches, meaning that results are easy to find. Because Zagat's review process is closed, it is not possible to compare and contrast individual reviews of a restaurant, as it is with sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor.


Yelp is the biggest ratings review site in the United States. It aggregates and consolidates more than 10 million reviews and receives more than 30 million page views per month. Reviews are by real people for restaurants that the average person can afford on a routine basis, as well as high-end restaurants. Reviews are also very recent and constantly updated, in contrast to guides such as Michelin and AAA, where inspectors may not have visited a restaurant for a year before the guide was published. The downside is that reviews are written by people who aren't culinary experts, and fast-food restaurants such as McDonald's are listed alongside fine-dining establishments. Yelp has also been accused of filtering through reviews and removing negative comments, which can manipulate the overall rating.

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