If you think you’ve read the answer to my question here before, you’re right; and a variant of this question is asked all the time on the busy food websites. But repetition is the best way of teaching/learning, so here goes.
Just a few weeks ago Joe Nocera, in a NYT column entitled “The College Rankings Racket" asked “…..Can you really say with any precision that Princeton is “better” than Columbia? That the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 6) is better than the California Institute of Technology (No. 10)?.....”
While he’s talking about U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings, anybody who thinks rating scales of things is new or rating restaurants is something the Zagats or bloggers invented, is seriously mistaken. Michelin, whose first Red Guide was published in 1900, but was about where to get tires when on trips, started rating restaurants in 1933 and everyone knows the stars and knife and fork system by now.
Nobody really thought of challenging them for a half-century until Gault and Millau began their eponymous Guides and monthly magazine in 1965 based on toques and x/20 numbering.
While there were rival guides that had various systems (Lebey’s Eiffel Towers for example) of rating places yearly it really wasn’t until Francois Simon pitched the Figaroscope idea to the venerable daily that anyone else challenged Gault/Millau’s monthly rating of places just opened, on a 5 point scale each week.
Wandering off the point story: A few years back an unsuccessful candidate for one of the Boards of Medicine sued saying that the cut-off line was set arbitrarily. Gosh oh golly.
Twice in the past, I’ve focused on the subject of Emmanuel Rubin’s ratings, since I think he’s the most respected to food raters in Paris and I addressed his most common grade of 2 hearts. In two periods of a few months I went to quite a few 2-heart choices, writing up my experiences in essays entitled “What on earth do two hearts mean?” in 2006 and “What do two hearts mean? Redux.” In 2010.
This experience plus my own attempt to go to decimal points and into negative ranges led me to take a look at my own scores and like Nocera, question whether the difference between Bistro Volnay’s ranking of 7.1 really means anything up against Magali Alcover & Delphine Marlan’s second restaurant (Les Jalles)’s rating of 7.0.
Lesson: Nocera’s subtitle says it all: “everyone cares about” such “silly list[s].” So for sure, we should all try to judge places, but like the silly scores for MIT and Harvard, don’t take the exercise too seriously.
*Ref: The Dating Game was an early reality TV show that ran in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.