Restaurant Rating Systems

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••• Michelin Guides. Getty Images Entertainment/Junko Kimura

If you're confounded by the masses of often contradictory restaurant reviews and ratings on the web, this guide will help you decipher how each company places restaurants at the top of their list.  This list is categorized from mostly anonymous expert reviews (Michelin) to mostly crowd-sourced ordinary diner reviews (Yelp.)

Michelin Stars

The term "Michelin Star" is a hallmark of fine dining quality and restaurants around the world tout their Michelin Star status.

 Of course, the hilarious part of all this is that this prestigious restaurant rating is from a . . . tire company.  

  • Pros: Anonymous restaurant reviews from highly authoritative, trained restaurant reviewers.
  • Cons: The recipients of the stars tend to be French-biased and high end, haute cuisine, bringing in the snob factor.  Michelin also only publishes reviews in three U.S. cities: San Francisco, Chicago, and New York.  

​Forbes Travel Guide

Forbes Travel Guide, formerly Mobil Stars, sends out anonymous inspectors to thousands of restaurants across the world and evaluates restaurants based on over 800 criteria.  

  • Pros: Reviews are by anonymous experts, but far more detailed than the Michelin Guide Stars.  
  • Cons: The checklist approach may exclude a restaurant from a higher diamond rating based on items that foodies don't necessarily care about, such as the availability of parking.

AAA Diamonds

The American Automobile Association (AAA or Triple A) reviews over 30,000 North American restaurants per year and hands out one to five Diamonds to these restaurants, based on an anonymous inspector's review of the restaurant.

 

  • Pros: AAA reviews a huge variety of restaurants, from fast food establishments to high-end dining spots.
  • Cons: Restaurants pay a fee to be included in the list and the checklist-style approach that their inspectors use isn't as foodie centered as Michelin's rating system.

Zagat Rating

Zagat compiles real people's reviews using an independent tallying agency.

 Scores are compiled on a 0 to 30 point scale and the reviews usually have snarky and pithy comments.  

  • Pros: Reviews are by real people for all restaurants.  Google incorporates Zagat's ratings into its searches, meaning that results are easy to find.  
  • Cons: 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 like Yelp and Tripadvisor.  Zagat has also been accused of "grade inflation."

Yelp Reviews

Yelp is the biggest ratings review site in the United States.  It aggregates and consolidates more than 10 million reviews on it and receives over 30 million page views per month.

  • Pros: 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 like Michelin and AAA, where inspectors may not have visited a restaurant for a year before the guide was published.
  • Cons: Yelp filters through the reviews, leading to many complaints and lawsuits that the reviews are manipulated.  Chefs have also argued that the restaurant reviews are not useful because it's, as Chef Zimmern says, by a "bunch of uninformed morons" rather than experts in cuisine.