French Restaurant Ratings, Critics’ Corruption and Cobwebs

French Restaurant Ratings, Critics’ Corruption and Cobwebs

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From time to time, people in the blogosphere ask about restaurant ratings and what they mean, about which critics are on the take and about how old reviews are. These are all very valid questions and deserve airing.

Let’s start with ratings. The oldest of course is that of the French Red Guide – Le Michelin – which famously says that its stars/macaroons designate culinary excellence and knives and forks signify “categories of comfort.” However, everyone has known for years that stars/macaroons are simply not awarded without the proper flower display, napery, silverware, wine list, etc., which is essentially the soul of the wonderful book by William Echikson Burgundy Stars, about how the late (and some think great) Bernard Loiseau went about getting his three at Saulieu.

Also famously, Gault & Millau attempted in 1965 to not only explode that ruse but, after a bumpy 5-part rating start, combine in a single number what made restaurants’ (especially the nouvelle) cuisine great. At the start of initiating their 0-20/20 scale, if I recall correctly, they insisted that the denominator 20 could never be achieved in the numerator. In their glory days, achieving 17 or 18 was terrific and even 13 and 14 quite good. However, over time, rating creep became just as inevitable as grade creep in Ivy League colleges and restos were increasingly bumping up against the ceiling. So they added chef’s toques (hats), which is all they use now. However, it should be noted that even in their heyday they never used the full 20 scale – it was all 10-20/20.

OK, to more contemporary times. The current, commonly purchased food guides all have scales vaguely imitative of Michelin stars, Pudlo the most reflexive with 1-3 plates and 1-5 knives and forks, Lebey 1-3 Eiffel towers and Figaroscope (yes, they just published one) 1-5 hearts; the weekly print pub A Nous Paris uses 1-5 dots. (In truth, Emmanuel Rubin of Figaroscope has just gone to a max of 4 hearts but has been awarding a busted heart for years so his scale still has 5 points on it.)

Now as a point of reference, think of my home-town neighbor, Robert Parker (beloved by the garagistes and hated by the establishment), who goes theoretically from 0-100 in rating Bordeaux but really only uses 51-99.9/100. Wow! And newest into the lists: Le Fooding, some of whose founders were part of the Gault-Millau counter-revolution that added goofy symbols that were, to this poor soul, incomprehensible; ditto.

In my reviews on various sites I chose to imitate none of the above on the principle that real contrarians are really contrary. I use 0-10/10 and while few restos attain a 9 – and 10 is reserved for the meal I’ll have before my lethal injection for calumny or slander, I do go below 0 if I’m especially annoyed or disgusted by a meal. I publish my scale periodically and it looks like this:

Scale (subject to fickleness and change):
10 – Giradet in the glorious old days.
9 – Ducasse, Bocuse, Loiseau at their prime.
8 – Bon Acceuil, Ze Kitchen Galerie, Regalade St Honore, Constant x3 now.
7- Bistro Cote Mer at its flowering best.
6 – Reminet, Marcab, l’Agrume
5 – Fabrique 4, Gauloise, Bistrot Lou
4 – 2 Pieces Cuisine, Tete dans les Olives
3 – Le Bouclard, Chez Flottes
2 – Sale + Pepe, Le 104
1 – le Nord-Sud
0 – Auguste, Fils a Maman, Pied a l’Etrier
Ø- Iode (RIP)

Now for something completely different as Monty Python would say, going to nothing different. Corruption is too strong a word, but influence and purchasability are not. It is well known that many critics eat on the cuff; one famous author/critic is reputed to have told his staff “we can’t pay you much, so either cadge the meal or write another review for someone else to recover your costs.” While I have no proof that this taints reviews, I’ve heard others say if given a free meal that’s bad, they either don’t publish the review or talk about the décor and drapes; and we know that doctors given free golf-weekends by pharma companies, for example, subsequently write more prescriptions involving their drugs.

My policy: pay in full for everything on my first visit when I’m writing my review (a la the critics at the New York Times or Figaro) unless I’m offered something on subsequent visits, in which case I declare such.

As for cobwebs: We all try to review in a timely fashion, that is, those of us bloggers like the Messrs Hesse, Lobrano & Tort, Mesdames Flick, Kemp, Mignot and Zimbeck, etc., but sometimes one holds back a review for a week. The food guides, excepting Lebey, however, are silent on this issue and if one believes the pseudonymous Pascal Remy’s account in “L’Inspecteur Se Met a Table” reviews can go years if not a decade without updating or revision.

Hot tip of the week:

Le Regalade St Honore
123, Rue St Honore in the 1st (Metro: Louvre-Rivoli)
T: 01.42.21.92.40
Closed weekends
Menu at 33 E.

Blog: John Talbott’s Paris at http://johntalbottsp…talbotts_paris/
©by John Talbott 2010


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