I really enjoyed the superb new edition of Townsend, reviewed following its move to Rittenhouse from East Passyunk that received three bells. But please don’t be mistaken: a three bell (“excellent”) review is an expression of genuine enthusiasm on my part — a rating that still holds some ringing value.
The fact is very few restaurants achieve four bells, even if they’re executing their concept seamlessly. The four-bell rating, currently assigned to only seven restaurants, is intended as an aspirational achievement that acknowledges special places that set some regional standards — a notion that can vary greatly from one place to another.
But this question is worthy of considering in broader terms, especially for people who may be unfamiliar with my Liberty Bell system, in part because I almost never talk about ratings within reviews themselves. The reason I don’t is because I view the text of a review and the rating as separate but complementary parts of a larger package. If you want to know the details of what it’s like to dine somewhere, the back story or how to navigate a menu, the in-depth review is there for that and more. The rating exists as an added service to readers that delivers a bottom line reflecting both my overall enthusiasm and where that restaurant sits within the wider context of our dining scene. I never write a review to fit a predetermined rating. If I’m on the fence over the course of my process, the rating comes last.
What sets one rating tier apart from another is often intuitive at the end of my process of multiple meals (paid for the by The Inquirer) and follow-up phone interviews. But there’s a fundamental distinction to my approach to ratings: It’s built around high expectations and an uninflated grading system, rather than a less ambitious standard where every restaurant starts with a perfect “4” and then slides downward as flaws in the meal appear. My operating assumption, in this very competitive dining scene, is that I’m already considering a group of restaurants that meet a certain level of quality. The real question is then “how good are they?”
To get a sense of that preselection process, take a look my recent piece (the Uh-Oh Collective) about some places I set aside after a scouting meal and decided not to formally review. But my purpose with uninflated grades is to assure that high-bell compliments still mean something. And three-bell restaurants are still an exclusive group, ranging from 10 to 14 restaurants each year of the total reviewed, just over 20%. The largest category of two-bell (“very good”) restaurants are also still intended as solid recommendations.
I’ve always been especially stingy with crowning new members of the four-bell elite — which are places that capture a moment in time, a unique magic at the table, and have proven it over years of consistency with a continued growth that shows they’re still evolving as living restaurants. There is no checklist of criterion involved — I just know it when I feel it. That club currently is comprised of Zahav, Vetri, Vernick Food & Drink, Vedge, Laurel, Royal Sushi, and Bibou.