“Exactly how many five-star reviews have you given, anyway?”
It was a question recently asked of me by Bentley Dillinger, who owns and operates Sandra D's in Auburn with his wife, Sandra.
The Dillingers are in a select group who have received two perfect ratings in the nearly 15 years I have had the pleasure of reviewing restaurants for The Journal Gazette. Their first was published Feb. 24, 2008, and the second ran Aug. 10, 2014, after their restaurant reopened following a long layoff and redesign caused by a water pipe breaking during frigid weather the winter before.
I laughed off the question at first. But I got to thinking after that conversation and wondered myself how many five-star reviews I had written, so I dug into our archives to investigate.
Since my first review – a four-star take on the now long-gone Misono Steakhouse on DuPont Road – on March 6, 2005, I have given 23 restaurants perfect ratings.
Here is a little look at those reviews:
• Only three other restaurants join Sandra D's as repeat five-star winners. The former Marko's on 2nd in Decatur was my first five-star review on May 29, 2005, and it repeated the feat on March 18, 2012. Cerulean in Winona Lake (Oct. 22, 2006, and Nov. 10, 2013), and Magic Wand in Churubusco (Sept. 4, 2005, and Sept. 17, 2017) are the others.
Marko's chef and owner, Mark Graves, took a two-year break from the industry and reopened the Marko's spot as Soul Pig Barbecue a year ago, which earned a very respectable four stars from me in April.
• The perfect list includes two Coney dog spots – Coney Island in its 100th anniversary year on July 6, 2014, and Coney Dog Café in New Haven as part of a piece covering the area's hot dog joints on June 18, 2006.
• It includes a bakery (Waynedale Bakery, now closed) and a gelateria (the former Tizio's Gelato in Glenbrook Square's food court).
• There were some long gaps without perfect reviews. The longest was nearly three years and started right after that first review of Sandra D's. It ended Jan. 9, 2011, with a perfect review of the now-defunct Maza Grille on Coldwater Road.
Other end of the spectrum
So, there have also been a number of bad reviews over the years.
The lowest ratings I have ever given – half of a star – were delivered twice. One of those recipients is no longer in business. The other happens to be a place I really enjoy and frequent now. I actually gave the place a three-star rating in a follow-up review.
My experiences at these restaurants serve as a reminder to me that restaurants can get better – and, yes, they can get worse – over the years and that you cannot count on the same experience each time you visit a restaurant. It also reminds me to value places that have been consistently good, because that is no easy feat.
Critics at large newspapers like the New York Times use different standards to deliver stars in their reviews. Restaurants have to earn every star.
I do things differently.
I give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt and figure each is at 21/2 stars when I walk in. As things impress me, the number rises. If things digress, the number falls.
A regular, decent experience at a regular place will receive 21/2 stars. I consider it the middle ground.
Best of the rest
Aside from the two half-star reviews, I have also written just nine one-star reviews.
The most common rating over the years has been 31/2 stars, which 101 restaurants received. Not far behind were ratings of three stars (96) and four stars (94). There have been 83 of those middle-ground 21/2-star reviews, 43 two-stars, 20 that received 41/2 stars and 14 that got 11/2 stars.
So, overall, there have been 314 better-than-average reviews and 68 less-than-average reviews.
The number just proves how good we have it here when it comes to dining out.
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.