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Parsing the Seattle Times' Star Ratings for Restaurants

For restaurants in other major food cities cities, the number of stars a dining critic awards is a big deal. The number of stars Sam Sifton and his New York Times predecessors award has a direct impact on business, positive or negative, and Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel made headlines earlier this year with a four-star restaurant review, his eighth in his 10 years as food critic.

In Seattle, a city that prides itself on its food reputation, the term "four-star restaurant" doesn't really exist. The only critical entity in town that awards stars is the Seattle Times, though they're tucked into the review without much fanfare. And to make matters more confusing, some fairly dissimilar establishments have the same ratings. Boom Noodle and Paddy Coyne's Irish Pub both have three stars. So do higher end spots Anchovies & Olives, Poppy and Revel.

Providence Cicero, who's been contributing reviews for the Times since Nancy Leson shed her anonymity and fired up the All You Can Eat blog in 2008, gamely answered some questions about the ratings system. Cicero isn't on staff for the paper, but she is one of a very few critics in this city who are relatively anonymous, make multiple visits to evaluate a restaurant, and have an expense account.

"Essentially, the stars indicate how well the restaurant succeeds at what it's trying to do," says Cicero. Factors like food quality, service, ambiance, consistency and comfort level all play a role:

Star ratings are assigned based on two to three anonymous visits to the restaurant. One star means "adequate," two "recommended," three "highly recommended." Four stars means "exceptional" and denotes the highest echelon of fine dining. Most reviews fall into the two-to-three star range. I have given one star, and even no stars. I personally haven't awarded four stars, although my predecessors have, which is not to say that there are no four-star restaurants in Seattle.

That's not to say, says Cicero, that Seattle has no four-star restaurants. "Over the past few years we have tended to focus on new restaurants, and it's the rare establishment that achieves four stars right out of the gate," she says.

According to the Times' searchable reviews, four restaurants hold the highest rating of 3.5 stars: La Medusa; Campagne; Spring Hill and Staple & Fancy Mercantile. Canlis, whose chef recently landed on the cover of Food & Wine magazine, currently has no formal rating.

Granted, times are grim for newspapers. Restaurant criticism is costly and continues to be the target of cutbacks. And many subscribers legitimately don't have the money or the inclination to care about expensive restaurants. However the proliferation of TV shows, movies and publications print and online dedicated to the restaurant world suggests there is a highly coveted demographic out there who might be interested in some serious star ratings.

Other cities' systems don't always apply in Seattle, where people don't embrace unabashed "fine dining" the way New Yorkers and San Franciscans might. However Hanna Raskin is here to tell you: the occasional highly positive, or highly negative assessment demands attention. This is, in its own (admittedly non-essential way) a form of public service journalism.

[Photo: Mykl Roventine/Flickr]