When I called my friend the Food Aristocrat with the news that the magazine was adopting a star system for the rating of restaurants, she let out a small, agitated sigh. “Boy, are you screwed,” she said. The Food Aristocrat, who not long ago moved to the peaceable hills of North Carolina to raise her child on a steady diet of biscuits and pork barbecue, had been a big-city restaurant critic herself once, so she knew the perils of the trade. Principal among these (after gout, choking, dyspepsia, and massive heart failure) was the peddling of objective certainty in what is, at its root, a highly subjective process. Unlike, say, movie critics, who watch the same film, or book critics, who read the same text, restaurant critics draw conclusions from a dining experience that can vary wildly not just day to day but hour to hour. Then there’s the whole question of perspective.
Isn’t a perfect one-star cheeseburger at least as delicious as a perfect four-star soufflé? “And what about all those crazy chefs?” asked the Food Aristocrat. “Did I mention they’ll all want to kill you no matter what you do?”
Too bad. We’re doing it anyway, from now on. And in a flight of reckless, possibly insane whimsy, we’ve decided to rank our favorite (okay, my favorite) restaurants in the city from 1 to 101. Why? Because people seem to enjoy this sort of thing. Among restaurateurs and diners, the concept of stars and rankings is beloved, despised, and also deeply ingrained, like some age-old caste system. When Michelin introduced its long-awaited guide to New York restaurants a couple of months ago, members of the city’s food cognoscenti gathered in a kind of lemminglike crush to see what the august Frenchmen had to say. Not much, it turned out. The book, everyone eagerly agreed, was quirky, off-key, and almost comically Francophile. Three stars for Alain Ducasse?! “Ducasse is the Abba of haute cuisine,” one of my food-writer friends sniffed. According to Michelin, one of the very top brasseries in New York is an entrenched Madison Avenue establishment called La Goulue. “La Goulue,” said another incensed food friend of mine. “My grandmother doesn’t even go to La Goulue!”
As it happens, I revisited La Goulue not long ago. It was very good in a faux-Parisian, grandmotherly sort of way. Is it in our top 101? Not quite. And what about Monsieur Ducasse? Having run through his third chef in five years, he gets two stars and a ranking of 33. You will find several classic one-star restaurants (Mary’s Fish Camp, Bellavitæ) elevated in status, and a few classic multi-star restaurants downgraded, or disappeared altogether. The Michelin judges honored Danube with two stars, for instance, but when I showed up for dinner recently, I cooled my heels at the bar for nearly an hour before being served a warmed-over dinner. When I last visited the city’s sole remaining grande dame French establishment, La Grenouille, I paid $47 for a plate of sad, vaguely rubberized pike quenelles, then watched as the pink light at our table blinked on and off before shorting out altogether. Was this belabored, archaic experience more satisfying than dining, say, on an excellent pan-seared pork-and-scallion sandwich ($8) at a new chef’s hangout in the East Village called Momofuku Noodle Bar? The answer, of course, is no. Momofuku is No. 101 on our list, and La Grenouille does not appear at all.
You’ll find similar crotchety judgments and opinions sprinkled throughout these pages. They are the product of nearly 1,000 meals digested over the course of five bleary years as a professional restaurant critic. They’re informed by a whole grab bag of personal tastes (more crispy pork products, please) and prejudices (easy on the club music; don’t dress waiters up like ninjas; no wine pairings). Because this critic has an aversion to high-priced franchises and restaurant chains, several much-praised establishments, like BLT Fish (one Michelin star) and Nobu 57 (three stars from the Times), didn’t make this list. Because five years isn’t a long time, many of the restaurants listed here tend to be newer rather than older. There are plenty more I’ve neglected, and probably a few I’ve just plain forgotten. Are these the absolute best 101 restaurants in New York City? That depends, I suppose, on your point of view. Is this a better guide than, say, Michelin’s? Since it’s written by a New Yorker, for New Yorkers, we certainly think so. But for the sake of international harmony, let’s just say it’s different. Let’s just say we’re adding to the fun.
What the Stars Mean
Ethereal; almost perfect
Exceptional; consistently elite
In this issue and henceforth in the magazine, all restaurant reviews will be accompanied by stars, from five down to zero. Five stars is an ethereal, rarely used designation, the equivalent of foodie heaven. Four stars means that we consider the restaurant and its chef to be among the city’s very best. Three stars means the restaurant is excellent, though not elite. A two-star rating is very good—though not necessarily so good for the many establishments in town that aspire to be a foodie heaven. Classically, one-star restaurants tend to be simple, more neighborly, and often more satisfying than their multi-star brethren, and that will often be the case here, although one star for a restaurant with elite aspirations is really not much better than no star at all. No stars on a review doesn’t necessarily mean a restaurant is bad; it means our critics don’t recommend you go out of your way to eat there. We chose to use five stars, instead of three or four, because the more levels of discrimination, or so the thinking goes, the more useful the list (a ranking isn’t so helpful if everyone gets the same rank). Historically, star-wielding restaurant critics tend to focus on food, ambience, and service to make their decisions. All of these factors contribute to the great Zeitgeist stew that defines a restaurant, but the most important ingredient, we think, is the food. Except when we think otherwise, in which case we reserve the right to blatantly violate our own rules. The brief explanation of our thinking that’s part of each review is meant to help diffuse the inevitable outrage and controversy systems like this one tend to provoke. Will people still be outraged? Of course they will. Bon appetit.