The Food Issue: Lost in the stars

CL's food critic breaks down his star rating system.

click to enlarge Whole roasted cauliflower by Haven, one of Tampa Bay's few five-star spots. - chip weiner
chip weiner
Whole roasted cauliflower by Haven, one of Tampa Bay's few five-star spots.

“From the foxhole where I attempt to pin stars on restaurants,” says New York Times food critic Pete Wells, “the view is limited.”

Our culture, it seems, demands a quick label to sum up a restaurant experience. But my relationship with stars, as they say on Facebook, is complicated. Four-star excellence varies; a casual kickass barbecue joint can do what it does as well as an impeccable fine-dining establishment. It’s all about context, so I encourage you to give greater weight to the narrative descriptions of the evening than to the star rating. What works well for you may differ with what excites me. Trust your own gut.

But since I know the star rating may be the first thing you notice, here’s how I do the numbers. The questions that guide my initial assessment come from Goethe’s art signposts: 1) What were they trying to do? 2) How well did they do it? 3) Was it worth doing?

My explications are as follows:

5 stars = World Class
Meets the standards of the finest offerings of its type in the world. No need to go to Belgium for chocolate or Italy for pizza; peers exist in Tampa Bay. Worthy of Michelin in the fine-dining realm.

4.5 stars = Excellent +
Overall top-of-the-line food and service, with dishes that surprise and thrill the palate.

4 stars = Excellent
Consistently producing delicious, balanced food and crackerjack service. A cut above.

3.5 stars = Very Good
Definitely worth a trip, with at least a dish or two that stands out.

3 stars = Good
You can safely plan to spend your hard-earned money here for a pleasant evening out.

2.5 stars = Fair +
At least one serious flaw that needs to be corrected. Might have an outstanding dish, but the negatives outweigh the positives.

2 stars = Fair
A general sense of mediocrity. They’ll only stay open through gluttonous portions or cheap beer.

1 star = Poor
Run in the other direction. Go to Publix for a sub or have a Lean Cuisine instead.

Note: I also know from my own return visits that not all eating establishments are consistent. I apologize in advance if a four star underwhelms or if a two-and-a-half star now excels.


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Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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