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Demystifying the ratings.

Exhilarating, maddening, democratic or highly subjective, guidebook ratings are more important to most chefs than they'd care to admit. Art Culinaire interviewed executives from Relais & Chateaux, Mobil Travel Guide and Citysearch, to help you better understand what they do, what they're looking for and how to get the best possible rating for your property.

Brenda Homick, Director, Relais & Chateaux North America

AC: The Relais Gourmands program was developed in 1972, as an offshoot of Relais & Chateaux, which was developed over 50 years ago. Why was there a need for a separate program?

BH: Cuisine has always been a very important factor in Relais & Chateaux, and one of our principal components for qualification, but we wanted to emphasize as well that there is a level of cuisine even above the Relais & Chateaux level, and that's why Relais Gourmands was developed.

AC: How many new applications does the North American Relais & Chateaux committee receive in a year?

BH: It changes from year to year, but we only accept a maximum of 10% of the applications in a year. In North America, for 2005, we actually accepted none of the applications that we received. Our president in Paris has been very stringent on quality control and even more so in the past couple of years, so we've actually decreased in numbers. We want to maintain and even enhance the level of our quality. I think, and I may be biased, but I feel that we are looked at as the benchmark of quality around the world and its important for us to maintain that. We receive many applications every year. On the Relais Gourmands level, the interest is even more enhanced than on the Relais & Chateaux level, because, especially in North America, the quality of our members is so high. We've got Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Patrick O'Connell--so the interest is certainly there. On my end, I certainly discourage applications from those [restaurants] who look at a glance to not really merit serious consideration.

AC: On what criteria would you base such an assessment?

BH: Based on the reputation of the chef, based on the ratings, based on our own experiences. If we recognize that there really is not a serious potential for them to be a candidate, then we tend to discourage them from the outset, because it's a long application process. We look at everything from the chef's background to the website, and our inspectors do a very thorough inspection of the property.

AC: And that's an anonymous inspection?

BH: Yes.

AC: What are the inspectors' qualifications?

BH: The inspectors are either from our Paris office, or are North American board members who have been within the organization for up to 30 years. They're very familiar with our standards of quality so their opinions are important and well-informed.

AC: What kind of advice would you give to a young chef who aspires to run a Relais Gourmands restaurant?

BH: Having experience with the existing Relais Gourmands restaurants is important. That's so key to really getting a sense of what it takes to run a restaurant of that caliber, and the commitment and dedication it takes, from the culinary side as well as the service side--because everything in a Relais Gourmands restaurant is so well-calculated and taken seriously. It really is an art form, a real passion and dedication.

AC: So what would a perfect application look like?

BH: The chef should have experience with some of the world's best chefs. They should have great ratings--a Mobil 5 star, Zagat--the absolute minimum from Zagat is a 27. Great AAA ratings, a great Michelin rating. But the anonymous inspections are very important because ratings, to a certain extent, have to be looked at with a grain of salt. I think we all acknowledge that a 29 Zagat rating in New York may be different than what it means in Minneapolis. There is nothing to replace the actual experience, so we have inspectors that are very familiar with our standards, who look at everything from the service level to the quality of the cuisine. Then there are our own member chefs--in many cases I'll know that Charlie Trotter, for example, is familiar with a particular restaurant, so I'll talk to him.

AC: So the member chefs have a role in the decision making process?

BH: They're critical. Absolutely.

AC: If a property makes it to the point of having what's considered a serious application, why might they ultimately be rejected?

BH: If we see that the chef's reputation is good, the ratings are where they should be and the feedback is good, but the anonymous visit itself is not where it should be, then that could be a problem.

AC: Under what circumstances would a Relais Gourmands restaurant be removed from the list?

BH: It's critical that the restaurant be chef-owner driven and managed. If there's a change in ownership or management, one is never certain of the continuation of the quality, so that would be cause for concern.

AC: Can a property that's been removed from the list ever hope to be reinstated?

BH: Oh certainly yes, and we do try to give them some guidance if we feel that there's a potential to re-enter the organization.


AC: Is it difficult to define one standard of excellence for so many properties in such different geographic contexts?

BH: It is difficult in that our properties are so diverse. That diversity is part of their charm as well. We have a property in Tahiti that obviously will not have the exact same features as a property in Manhattan or London. We are really looking for the exceptional within each environment.

Shane O'Flaherty, Vice President of Quality Assurance, Mobil Travel Guide

AC: Please tell our readers a bit about how Mobil Travel Guide operates.


SO: Well, we've been around since 1958, when we created the star rating system in North America. We started out rating hotels and restaurants, using an inspection team. Today, we inspect hotels, restaurants and spas in the United States and Canada. Our inspectors rate over 8,000 restaurants and 7,000 hotels, and we cover all major markets. We have two types of inspection teams in the field. We have field inspectors that perform facility inspections at the one to three-star level. The inspectors don't generally dine at the one, two or three-star level. Our goal at that level is to determine that a facility is in a safe neighborhood, or that it's a place that we'd want to recommend to a friend. We're doing basic reconnaissance work for our readers. Then we have an anonymous service evaluation team for the four and five-star dining level. They also evaluate those properties that we feel are functioning at a high three-star level, that have the potential to be a four or five-star property.


AC: What information or criteria would lead Mobil Travel Guide to perform a service evaluation at a three-star property?

SO: That decision would be based on our internal research, on our knowing where the good chefs are working. We can also get a good read from how a property scores in the initial facility evaluation--meaning that the facility itself is in great condition. Our inspectors give us good insight and in the end we make a judgement call as to whether we visit a facility. There are currently 14 five-star, 139 four-star and 3,000 three-star properties in our inventory.

AC: What does Mobil Travel Guide look for in a potential four or five-star facility?

SO: We're looking for a luxurious facility and personalized service. There are a lot of properties that have the potential to be a four or five-star. The specific service standards are a closed book. We hold onto those for proprietary reasons. But the facility standards are an open book to anyone who is interested. If a property that we haven't yet visited, or a new property, would like us to perform a service evaluation, we can arrange that, for a fee plus any travel expenses. This is a change that we've introduced in the last three months, as a change in our business model. We've been asked year after year by chefs and restaurateurs to please provide some insight into their particular inspection and rating, and that was information we were never able to give out.

AC: Can a new restaurant, or one that has escaped the notice of Mobil Travel Guide, request an evaluation?

SO: Yes. There's a process we go through if a new property wishes to be inspected, they'll fill out an application, and that gets them on our radar screen right away. We'll be out and inspect within 60 to 90 days of receiving their application. We still do what we normally do, meaning we go to restaurants on our own dime. If a restaurant opens and they don't want to be part of our contracted service evaluation, we will still, if we believe this new restaurant is a good one, inspect and rate it accordingly.

AC: Once a restaurant has been rated, for how long is their rating valid?

SO: We have all our properties--15,000 hotels, restaurants and spas--on a rotating, 18 to 24 month cycle, with four and five-star [properties] evaluated every year. And we also evaluate a list of potential four-stars that are currently three-stars, or new opens, on an annual basis. For example, in 2004, we performed over 10,000 inspections.

AC: Do you try and put a cap on the maximum number of properties at the four and five-star levels?

SO: No, but for instance if there are six Italian restaurants in St. Louis, we would not rate all six, we would only rate the top two or three. We try to minimize the number of choices for the consumer.

AC: What differentiates your new "Where to Eat" guides from the Mobil Travel Guide?

SO: The "Where to Eat" books go a little more in-depth on a specific city. There are only four currently being published--for New York, Boston and Cape Cod, Chicago and Los Angeles. They provide insight on chefs and more in-depth reviews of properties.

AC: Who is the target readership for Mobil Travel Guide and the "Where to Eat" guides?

SO: It depends. We cover all markets, meaning that the inventory of properties we rate covers the one through five-star categories, making the guides essentially a mass-market product. Our high-end consumers look to the star ratings and our mid-level consumers are looking at that one to three-star markets. 80% of all leisure travel in the US is done by car, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, so [the driver] is the primary market we go after.

James Wevley, Citysearch New York City Senior Editor

AC: Please tell us a bit about how Citysearch operates.

JW: All Citysearch reviews are done anonymously. We have a team of editorial staff and freelance contributors who are given assignments to visit new restaurants or heavy hitters within a city that are in need of updated review. We have one writer go to each restaurant with two to three diners, and they're sampling as much of the menu as possible. We have an editorial rating system: recommend highly, recommend, or average. An average place just doesn't distinguish itself in any way. A recommended place is one that, we can say to our user base, this is going to be a fine establishment, you're going to enjoy your experience. And the highly recommended restaurants would obviously be the top-tier restaurants in any market. What Citysearch does is tell people where to go, where to spend their time and money. We cover 19 markets very intensely, but we actually have 39 markets in total, with the other 20 getting seasonal updates.

AC: Does Citysearch still offer web design services to restaurants without an existing web presence, as it did in in the early stages of its existence?

JW: No. That was when we were first starting out, but that is no longer a part of our business model. Restaurants do not pay to be listed with Citysearch.

AC: How does Citysearch compile its list of restaurants to review?

JW: It just depends on buzz, and on our users talking about who is doing what. We have a pretty active user review process, and we'll look and see oh, here's a new restaurant and there are already 20 user reviews. We look for those restaurants that people are talking about, that have buzz and energy. We also work closely with PR agencies, who do a good job of keeping us up to date on openings and things like chef and menu changes.

AC: If a chef would like his restaurant to be considered for review but doesn't employ a publicist, would you encourage him or her to get in touch with your editorial staff?

JW: Of course. Citysearch is at its best when it's the most current and fresh. We understand that not every restaurant has a publicist, and we always appreciate hearing about a great place that we might have missed.

AC: If you hear that a chef of a recommended or highly recommended restaurant has left, do you re-review the place?

JW: When we hear about chef changes or serious menu changes, or a new restaurant, we wait two months before sending a reviewer. We're not in the business of reviewing a place the day that it opens. We know that it takes a little time for a new business or a new chef to get their footing.

AC: How many restaurants do you review in any given market in the course of a year?

JW: As many as we can, and as many as our time and budget will allow. Restaurants are the cornerstone of our sites. If I were to give you a ballpark figure, I'd say for example we do up to 25 new reviews in the New York market on a monthly basis.

AC: Is there anything a chef or restaurateur can do if he's gotten an "average" rating but feels he deserves to be "recommended"?

JW: Well as I said before, we have a very active user review process. One thing I like to encourage is that people who have been to the restaurant and have enjoyed it, or found it above average, post their own reviews. So I suppose a chef could encourage customers to do that. What we found is that our users look at both the editorial team's review, and the user reviews, in making a decision about where to eat.

AC: What are the qualifications for a Citysearch editorial reviewer?

JW: We have people who have restaurant-reviewing experience for magazines or newspapers, and people who have written books about food. Certainly we want reviewers who know the restaurant scene locally, and it's important that they're able to compare and contrast restaurants within a market.

AC: As a national organization, is it difficult to maintain a unified standard for recommending restaurants when you're dealing with so many properties in such different geographic contexts?

JW: We have a very elaborate and detailed style guide that we use in evaluating all of the restaurants from Boston to Austin, Texas to Los Angeles. From our reviewers, we look for a very similar voice and structure of reporting, regardless of where it's coming from, and we do apply the same standards across the country.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:industry spotlight; Brenda Homick
Publication:Art Culinaire
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Previous Article:Mise en place.
Next Article:Wanna cookie?

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