Philly food and drink scene

Philadelphia chefs embrace a no-bell future, as Inquirer critic officially drops rating system

“How do you have one standard for all these different cultures that are completely different?” one restaurateur observed.

A meal at Sate Kampar, which served Malaysian food on East Passyunk, and received a two-bell rating that was later upgraded to three

A meal at Sate Kampar, which served Malaysian food on East Passyunk, and received a two-bell rating that was later upgraded to three

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

It’s official: Philadelphia restaurants will no longer be able to chase a coveted four-bell rating from longtime Inquirer food writer Craig LaBan.

Consensus from Philly chefs: it’s the end of an era, but probably the right decision for LaBan, his readers and the restaurants he writes up.

“It’s the only decision an actual good food writer could make,” said Marc Vetri, of Vetri Cucina, Fiorella, and Fiore Rosso, noting the “beauty” in food writing that explores culture, creativity and innovation.

LaBan notified readers on Wednesday that he would not resume his Liberty Bell ratings in his reviews. He had stopped doling out bells (which range from 0 to 4) when the pandemic shut down eateries everywhere, and he hadn’t picked the practice back up when he started critiquing again in June 2021. Resuming now, he explained, just wouldn’t be helpful.

“My reasons are multiple,” LaBan wrote. “But the primary motivation for ending the Liberty Bell rating system I created for The Inquirer is the same as when I first rang them with 24 years ago: to be more useful to readers.”

Some food critics at other publications have gone the same direction, like The Washington Post and Eater. Some even did so before the pandemic, LaBan noted, like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Miami Herald.

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

Some city papers have gone back to scoring their restaurants, like The New York Times and the Boston Globe, LaBan noted.

Philadelphia’s restaurant community, however, seems to be mostly embracing a rating-less future.

“Given all that the restaurant and hospitality industry has been in over the past few years, as LaBan describes in his piece, I think this is a positive move to help restaurants improve,” said Ellen Yin, co-founder of High Street Hospitality Group, which runs Old City’s Fork and High Street, plus + bar in Rittenhouse.

The kitchen at Fork in Old City, in 2014

The kitchen at Fork in Old City, in 2014

Danya Henninger

One standard for many styles

The problem with restaurant critic ratings, several chefs said, is that readers often use them to compare vastly different experiences, or they write off a perfectly good restaurant completely because it’s not among the highest tier.

While LaBan’s reviews may have done good things for diversity and equity in Philadelphia’s restaurant community — shining a spotlight on otherwise unknown or undercovered talent — the bells have not, said Angelina Branca, who owned Sate Kampar, an East Passyunk BYOB serving elevated Malaysian street fare.

Sate Kampar closed in 2020, a casualty of the pandemic, but Branca is looking for a spot to reopen.

“How do you have one standard for all these different cultures that are completely different? You just can’t,” Branca said, noting she has aired her grievances to LaBan about this before.

When it came to bells, Sate Kampar was no slouch. It got two bells in 2016 and was upgraded to three a couple years later. Branca celebrated the achievement, she admitted, but it also created some assumptions about her restaurant that weren’t true. For instance, she said, she was once asked why a two-bell restaurant didn’t have wine glasses.

“We got bad [customer] reviews because it set a different expectation,” she said. “Even though Craig LaBan wrote his entire experience very beautifully … it did not change the fact that people forgot about what he wrote and just focused on what they expected from a two-bell rating.”

Branca also noted the bells did not result in a financial windfall for her business. “Ratings don’t translate into whether a restaurant can survive or not,” she said.

Vetri Cucina, on Spruce Street in Center City

Vetri Cucina, on Spruce Street in Center City

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Too permanent for modern dining

For some restaurants, however, LaBan’s rating system was a make-or-break factor. He created the scheme in the late 90s as a way to create a sense of order for his reviews in a booming Philly restaurant scene.

“They were such a bragging piece to be able to say you had three bells,” said Ben Fileccia, a senior VP at the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association and former manager of several restaurants.

The scene has changed, LaBan noted — due in part to the pandemic, as well as the proliferation of online review platforms like Yelp, Resy, OpenTable, Google, TripAdvisor and more — and he’s ready to drop the system he launched.

Every restaurateur who spoke with Billy Penn noted LaBan’s reviews result from a rigorous reporting process, and lengthy conversations between writer and chef. Having a lot of bells was a great feeling, but getting the feedback was often more valuable.

Fillecia, who worked at restaurants with one bell, two bells, and three bells, said, “It wasn’t the lack of bells that made us improve. It was actually the written context and speaking with Craig afterward.”

Even if improvements were made after the review, the rating stayed the same — at least until a rare revisit — and could easily turn off potential customers.

“You would have to visit a restaurant multiple times a year to keep the rating valid,” said Joe Cicala, chef at Cicala Restaurant in the Divine Lorraine.

Eggplant ratatouille at Maison 208

Chef Sylva Senate plates eggplant ratatouille at former Gayborhood restaurant Maison 208

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What’s the goal now?

One potential downside of losing the rating is it removes a motivational factor for chefs and their staffs, some said.

“It’s not just a rating… it was ‘let’s try to get to that next level.’ Well, what’s that next level now?” Cicala asked.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Sylva Senat, executive chef at the Pyramid Club in Center City.

“It’s great that the stories will stay, and the ratings and the anxiety — in some kitchens the almost toxic culture of ratings that dictates everything your core team does — will go away,” Senat said.

Still, Senat worries Philly’s food scene might not get the national and international attention it deserves without a citywide rating system. “What’s going to bring Michelin here now that there’s no star ratings? How are they going to filter which restaurants to go to?” he said.

LaBan, for his part, wrote in his farewell to bells that he thinks the city has already won Michelin’s attention, and that their globally coveted stars “are now lurking around Philly’s corner.”