My friends and I have, over the last six months, developed a numeric scale we use for rating restaurants. In the interest of concretizing these definitions, providing examples of which restaurants fit which venues, and also forcing myself to write some more, I've decided to explicate the system for public benefit.
Before beginning, it's important to note two points of clarification: first, these ratings are absolute, not relative. To me, it's important to ignore disconfirmation. A highly-rated restaurant that underwhelmed you isn't automatically worse than a niche restaurant that blew you away. Importantly, price is explicitly not a variable on our scale. We should specifically ignore whether we feel that a restaurant is overpriced or a great value play.
Second, a restaurant's rating is not an indictment of its quality. Not every restaurant needs to be a 10/10, nor is every restaurant trying to be. Sometimes, we want 3/10 food. That's totally normal and acceptable. You shouldn't perceive a 7/10 as "inferior" to an 8/10, because chances are they have fundamentally different goals in mind.
With that being said, here's our scale.
1 - Physically inedible or painful. You became ill, whether literally or figuratively, from eating this meal.
Examples: Chipotle during their E. coli outbreak; that sketchy food truck outside your apartment with "questionable" sanitation practices; that one time you burned the hamburgeres, but were so hungry you ate them anyway
2 - Very bad, never again. You make it a point to actively avoid this establishment. If your friends want to go, you'll veto their choice.
Examples: tourist traps, Trump Grill(e), Pete Wells on Guy's American Bar and Kitchen
3 - Gets the job done. You eat at these venues for literal sustenance, not for any sort of gastronomical or cultural experience. With that being said, this is the first level at which you'll actively choose to eat somewhere. It might taste good, but you're eating for existence, not enjoyment. (Or, you're drunk.)
Examples: Chipotle, Five Guys, the sandwich place downstairs, most fast food restaurants
4 - Almost a destination. You wouldn't generally go out of your way to eat here, but there are definitely worse options. Sometimes it's fun to roll here with your friends, inhale a bunch of wings, and watch the game.
Examples: Buffalo Wild Wings, Red Lobster, Cheesecake Factory, most casual dining chains
5 - Standard fare. This is the minimum rating at which point you go here to enjoy the food. You'd actively suggest a 5/10 restaurant for a meal with friends. This isn't necessarily a "nice" restaurant, just a venue where it's obvious that the chef cares about cooking.
Examples: 4505 Barbecue, Bassanova Ramen
6 - Nice sitdown. This is what the average person thinks a "fancy" dinner is. Not the best in class, but a good meal with passable service. This is the highest-tier restaurant that non-major cities will have.
Examples: Morimoto, Perbacco, Bottega, Din Tai Fung, Avra Estiatorio
7 - High quality, meets expectations. Likely Michelin starred or shows up in other rankings, but hasn't yet perfected their craft. A solid staple, but not necessarily innovative. You can imagine the tastes relatively accurately before eating here. You know what you're going to get, and you're happy with that.
Examples: Spruce, Gramercy Tavern, TWO
8 - Great, emotionally stirring. Well-known dishes are executed at the highest level. May experiment, but aren't pushing the boundaries of cuisine. Often a place that people visit for special occasions. Will walk away deeply satisfied with the experience. This is the first rating at which you'd feel comfortable describing the food as moving.
Examples: Gary Danko, Piora
8.5 - Standout, but with strong caveats. The only fractional rating on the scale, an 8.5 has the components of a 9, such as generally top-notch food and service. However, the restaurant either served an experimental dish that wasn't fully considered, or it dropped the ball on the preparation of a classic. Unfortunately, a number of highly-regarded restaurants fall into this category, having made one or two glaring mistakes. These are still excellent dining experiences worth having, but represent a missed opportunity.
Examples: Betony, Marea, Jean-Georges
9 - Exceptional, new culinary perspective. These restaurants will offer you tastes that are new and creative. They will challenge how you think about food, service, and what a restaurant can be. Likely to be culturally impactful and held in high esteem by critics. A cherished memory.
Examples: Atera, Manresa, Sushi Nakazawa, French Laundry, The Modern
10 - World class. These are the best restaurants in the world. Every dish is an adventure, and every detail of the experience has been considered. By itself, food cannot take a restaurant to this level; it needs a little spice of magic from its atmosphere, service, physical space, etc. Reservations—if you can get one—are absolutely worth building a trip around.
Examples: Eleven Madison Park, Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, Osteria Francescana
Again, I want to re-emphasize that this rating scale only focuses on food quality. It ignores cost, and it isn't meant to confer judgment on restaurants, chefs, or patrons. We as humans choose where to eat based on a combination of factors, one of which happens to be food quality. But do we feel like we're getting good value based on what our final bill was? Do we have the budget to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants every month? Does one friend not want to eat Scandanavian food? These are all valid questions that affect where we choose to eat. Personally, I'll eat dollar slice pizza after going out to the bars, I have Chipotle for dinner a couple times a month, and there's nothing quite like a burger when I'm famished. Just like how there are valid reasons to splurge on a truly memorable meal, there are equally valid reasons to eat fast food.
Finally, one might notice that I didn't include any steakhouses in my list of examples. I do love a high-quality steak, so it's not for lack of experience or preference. It's simply that I don't find steakhouses themselves to be good examples. It's hard to imagine most steakhouses rating higher than a 7, with the best in the world being an 8. A traditionally prepared steak simply doesn't leave much room for true culinary innovation. Moreover, steakhoseus, while serving delicious food, usually fall outside the purview of "fine dining."