The Washington Post Will No Longer Publish Starred Restaurant Reviews

Critic Tom Sietsema says "restaurants merit more than a symbol."

Image by sesame via Getty Images Plus.

Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema paused awarding stars to restaurants at the beginning of the pandemic. Today, he announced he’s getting rid of the rating system for good.

“Especially now, given all the industry’s challenges, restaurants merit more than a symbol to sum them up. Words allow for nuance. Stars, not so much,” Sietsema wrote in a column about the shift. He noted that very few readers have asked for their return, and that the symbols discouraged some from reading about or visiting restaurants that were still worth their while.

While the zero-star pan is officially dead, that’s not to say an old-fashioned takedown is too. Sietsema told Washingtonian in June that he’d become “more of a cheerleader than I ever would have” because of the pandemic, but the landscape was changing. “I do feel like I’m ready to write more negative pieces now… Do I have a negative review ready to go? I do not. But I can see a time where I might do that,” he said.

Sietsema joins a growing number of prominent big-city critics to go starless. The Los Angeles Times disbanded stars way back in 2012 when the late Jonathan Gold rejoined the paper. More recently, in 2019, Soleil Ho eliminated them when they took over the critic job at the San Francisco Chronicle. Eater critic Ryan Sutton dropped them just over a year ago. He wrote that stars lead to “countless baffling and unfair comparisons” and that “many readers don’t so much come seeking buy-or-not consumer advice as they come looking for a bit of vicarious experience, or to wrestle with complicated cultural questions.” Meanwhile, Sietsema’s  colleague, Tim Carman, who reviews “affordable and under-the-radar restaurants” has never used stars.

Many more outlets, including Washingtonian, suspended stars during the pandemic as restaurants reinvented their business models and struggled to survive. My colleague and Washingtonian lead critic Ann Limpert says there are no immediate plans to bring them back to the magazine. Here are her thoughts about the star system:

We’ve also moved away from doing the traditional, single-restaurant, starred review—I’ll still do single reviews of course, just not every month. I’ve always hated the stars. Not because some readers just skip the review and check out the rating, but because what the star rating conveys is so muddled. What is a 2.5 star restaurant? Ask that question to a bunch of people and you’ll get a whole lot of different answers. To me, it is a very good place with a lot going for it, but maybe some room for improvement. A lot of people see that rating and go, eh, sounds like a C grade, I’ll skip. Especially now that we’re living in a five star world thanks to Amazon and Yelp. One and four stars are the only really clear indicators. Pre-pandemic, I kept stars around because I felt like readers wanted them, but I haven’t heard much indication that they’re missed.

That’s not to say stars are totally ancient history. The New York Times revived starred reviews in June after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Critic Pete Wells kicked off their return with an untraditional pick for a three-star tribute: a South Bronx food trailer famed for its machete-chopped lechón. “Although the pandemic hasn’t ended, people are going to restaurants,” Wells wrote by way of explanation.

The next big question for Sietsema: Will he also follow the lead of countless other critics and drop his attempts at anonymity next? Likely not, even if he is widely recognized around town. And if he did, he told Washingtonian in June that he would not make some splashy pronouncement.

“I am not going to be the 25th critic to write, ‘Unmasked!’ If it happens, it happens,” Sietsema said at the time. “At this point, yeah, do a lot of restaurants know? Sure, but we all have our little tricks that we employ to get in and out.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.