Philadelphia Restaurant Reviews: Chefs Respond to End of Reviews at Inquirer

It’s official: Philadelphia restaurants will no longer be able to chase a coveted four-clock rating from longtime Inquirer food writer Craig LaBan.

Philly Chefs Consensus: It’s the end of an era, but probably the right decision for LaBan, his readers, and the restaurants he writes.

“It’s the only decision a really good food writer could make,” said Marc Vetri, of Vetri Cucina, Fiorella and Fiore Rosso, pointing to the “beauty” in food writing that explores culture, creativity and innovation.

LaBan informed readers on Wednesday that he would not resume his Liberty Bell ratings in his reviews. He had stopped handing out bells (which range from 0 to 4) when the pandemic closed eateries everywhere, and he hadn’t picked up the practice again when he started criticizing again in June 2021. Resuming now, he explained, just wouldn’t be helpful.

“My reasons are multiple,” LaBan wrote. “But the primary motivation for ending the Liberty Bell rating system I created for The Inquirer is the same as when I first called them 24 years ago: to be more useful to readers.”

Some food critics at other publications have gone in the same direction, such as The Washington Post and Eater. Some did so even before the pandemic, LaBan noted, such as the San Francisco Chronicle and the Miami Herald.

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Some city newspapers have gone back to scoring their restaurants, such as The New York Times and the Boston Globe, LaBan noted.

However, Philadelphia’s restaurant community seems to be mostly embracing an unrated future.

“Given everything the restaurant and hospitality industry has been through in recent years, as LaBan describes in his piece, I think this is a positive step to help restaurants improve,” said Ellen Yin, co-founder of High Street Hospitality Group. which runs Old City’s Fork and High Street, plus + bar in Rittenhouse.

Fork's kitchen in Old City, in 2014
Danya Henninger

One standard for many styles

The problem with reviews from restaurant critics, several chefs said, is that readers often use them to compare wildly different experiences, or completely write off a perfectly good restaurant because it isn’t top-tier.

While LaBan’s ratings may have done good for diversity and fairness in Philadelphia’s restaurant community — a spotlight on otherwise unknown or undercover talent — the bells haven’t, said Angelina Branca, owner of Sate Kampar, an East Passyunk BYOB that serving high Malaysian street fare .

Sate Kampar closed in 2020, a victim of the pandemic, but Branca is looking for a place to reopen.

“How do you have one standard for all those different cultures that are completely different? It just can’t be,” Branca said, noting that she’d expressed her grievances about this to LaBan before.

When it came to clocks, Sate Kampar was no slouch. It got two bells in 2016 and was upgraded to three a few years later. Branca celebrated the achievement, she admitted, but it also created some assumptions about her restaurant that weren’t true. For example, she said she was once asked why a two-bell restaurant didn’t have wine glasses.

“We’ve gone bad” [customer] reviews because it creates a different expectation,” she said. “While Craig LaBan wrote his entire experience very nicely…it didn’t change the fact that people forgot what he wrote and only focused on what they expected from a two-clock review.”

Branca also noted that the clocks did not result in a financial windfall for her company. “Reviews don’t translate into whether a restaurant can survive or not,” she said.

Vetri Cucina, on Spruce Street in Center City
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Too permanent for modern dining?

However, for some restaurants, LaBan’s rating system was a make-or-break factor. He created the schedule in the late 90s as a way to create a sense of order for his reviews in a thriving Philly restaurant scene.

“They were such a boastful piece to be able to say you had three bells,” said Ben Fileccia, a senior VP at the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association and former manager of several restaurants.

The scene has changed, LaBan noted — due in part to the pandemic, as well as the proliferation of online review platforms like Yelp, Resy, OpenTable, Google, TripAdvisor and more — and he’s poised to drop the system he launched.

Every restaurateur who spoke to Billy Penn noted that LaBan’s ratings are the result of a rigorous reporting process and lengthy conversations between writer and chef. Having lots of bells was a great feeling, but getting feedback was often more valuable.

Fillecia, who worked in restaurants with one bell, two bells, and three bells, said: “It wasn’t the lack of bells that made us improve. It was basically the written context and then the conversation with Craig.”

Even if improvements were made after the review, the rating remained the same – at least until a rare re-visit – and potential customers could easily be turned off.

“You would have to visit a restaurant several times a year to keep the rating valid,” said Joe Cicala, executive chef at Cicala Restaurant in the Divine Lorraine.

Eggplant ratatouille at Maison 208
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What is the goal now?

One potential downside to losing the rating is that it takes away a motivating factor for chefs and their staff, some said.

“It’s not just a rating… it was ‘let’s try to get to that next level’. Well, what’s that next level now?” asked Cicala.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Sylva Senat, executive chef at the Pyramid Club in Center City.

“It’s great that the stories will stay, and the ratings and the fear — in some kitchens the almost toxic culture of ratings that dictate everything your core team does — will disappear,” Senat said.

Still, Senat worries that Philly’s food scene might not get the national and international attention it deserves without a city-wide grading system. “What does Michelin bring here now that there are no star ratings? How are they going to filter which restaurants they go to?” he said.

For his part, LaBan wrote in his parting bells that he thinks the city has already caught Michelin’s attention and that their globally coveted stars “are now lurking around the corner from Philly”.

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