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May 29, 2008 12:38 AM

Howard Seftel's Reviews

I have been to the Estate House twice now and really enjoyed it both times. Was it a life changing experience? No. Were the dishes on the cutting edge of cuisine? No. But the food was well prepared and the service was "pleasent" (not flawless). So, after seeing Howard's 3 star review today I have to say I was a little confused and thought it might be time to question the validity of his process. Surely awarding restaurants like humble pie 4 stars and a restaurant like Estate House 3 should raise some questions. Clearly they are not in the same league. A pizza place getting a better review than a solid french restaurant? Howard seems to rate places against their peers instead of an objective set of guidelines that creates a standard. That may sound well and good untill you consider two very different french restaurants that once held the same rating: Zinc Bistro and Mary Elaine's. Both very good in their respective classes but not the same caliber restaurants. It completely skews the integrity of the rating system. The heart of the problem is that when Howard rates a restaurant against its peers, the decision of who those peers are falls solely on Howards shoulders. Comparing The Estate House to very small chef owned restaurants like Binkley's and Sea Saw is an error in judgement because that is clearly not who they are trying to be. Estate House is like 4 times the size of those places.So I guess if you are planning to open a restaurant and want a good review from Howard you have 3 options: open a pizza place, do mildly interesting Japanese food, or be Kevin Binkley.

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  1. Completely disagree. When reviewing a restaurant, of *course* it should be compared against its peers. The point of a review, and the star rating, is to indicate how well the restaurant is doing what it set out to do. It sounds like, based on your logic, you feel the best BBQ joint in town would have a lower star-rating than a terrible fine-dining restaurant? These aren't like hotel ratings, where the stars represent certain levels of service and amenities. The stars merely represent whether the restaurant is any good or not, period.

    1. I concur with Boingo. Binkley's might get five stars for being "best in class," but the no-frills taco place on the corner could also get five stars for perfect execution of its concept, also. While I don't always agree with Seftel's comments (and I happen to be a fan of both Binkley's AND Estate House), what he is trying to accomplish is to rate an establishment on exection of its goal, be that foie gras or frijoles!

      1. Sxfan,

        Just about every “rating system” is flawed, in one way, or another. Rating restaurants is a bit like rating wines. How can one possibly rate a young, light Pinot Gris with an aged 1er Cru Bordeaux? Well, if one has to, the best place to start is to things like “varietal characteristics,” i.e. how that/those grape(s) *should* taste. Then, it’s a matter of awarding points, stars, forks, etc., for how well that wine/restaurant lives up to the reviewer’s expectations. Problem is, one can find a wine (insert “restaurant” here), that fulfils all expectations for that varietal. It scores big points for doing what is expected, considering the grape(s) used. However true to the varietal, this wine might be, there is still no guarantee, that one will enjoy it. In the wine world, a battle rages constantly, when a Zinfandel is rated poorly, because it is more like a Cab, or a Syrah, or whatever, but is still a very enjoyable wine. Many folk would say that a Zinfandel must taste like a Zinfandel, and no tolerance is allowed. Same for a restaurant, large, small, pizza-parlor, or sit-down. Many reviewers will have a pre-conception, a set of expectations, if you wish, of what a particular restaurant will be like, and perform like. The rating is based on the meeting of those expectations. How else could it be done? Otherwise, Pizzeria Bianco could never be rated above a 2, on a 5-scale. It’s a pizzeria, for goodness sake! Only Kai, or the now gone Mary Elaine’s could ever hope to attain a 5. Even Binkley’s could only muster a 4, because it is not “up-scale” enough.

        For me, especially with wine and restaurants, it’s not about the numbers, but the descriptions. I do not care much about a reviewer’s “expectations,” only a good description of what he/she found, while prepping for the review. With a restaurant, tell me about flavors, the presentations, the service, the atmosphere, the price and the wine list. Write about what one actually encountered, and leave the pre-conceptions at the door. Unfortunately, that does not work for many folk. They have to know the “score.” There are all too many people, who will only buy and drink wines that score 95, or higher, on someone’s scale. Same for restaurants - how many stars did Michelin give again?

        Now, not having dined at The Estate House, I cannot comment on what Seftel’s review. I will say that the descriptions sounded quite good, and he seemed to score down, when the “degree of difficulty” was factored in. Still, from the descriptions there (and some reviews here), I think I would enjoy dining there. Points, stars, forks will always be highly subjective and their awarding will be heavily filtered through the reviewer’s perceptions. I like to read the lines, and find that ratings are too much “reading *between* the lines.”

        Just like a musician, who hits all the right notes, has a perfect beat/tempo, but puts no “soul” into the performance. They could easily get a 100, while a musician who misses a note, or two, could give a rendition that brings the audience to tears, and only get an 80.

        Just a personal take on the situation,


        5 Replies
        1. re: Bill Hunt

          I response to Pizzaria Bianco, I don't think it should get 5 stars. Yes , the pizza is the best anywhere, but it is pizza. Not to mention that the room is not what I would consider a 5 star experience and the service while very friendly is not 5 star. 5 star to me means the ultimate experience not the best exprience for the money. At least if you read the NY Times ( and I am not a Frank Bruni fan) you know what he is looking for in a 3 or 4 star restaurant. Does he rate per se the same as Gray's Papaya because he thinks they have the best hot dogs?

          1. re: sxfan

            I believe Bruni generally reviews only high-end restaurants. Bargain restaurants are reviewed in a separate "$25 and under column" that is currently written by Peter Meehan. The Times has clear segmentation of its restaurant coverage. At the Republic, it's a muddled mess with Seftel sometimes reviewing a place only to have one of the secondary reviewers cover it later. I don't dislike the secondary reviewers as much as winedubar, but the Republic does need to segregate their beats from Seftel's more effectively.

            1. re: silverbear

              The rest of them can give their opinions and have them published as the newspaper sees fit. None of them though, except Seftel, should have the ability to grant any kind of star rating to anything they review. Some of the reviews in the past month have been ludicrous at best.

              1. re: silverbear

                My whole point was, that if you are going to measure a restaurant against its competition that's fine, just be fair with whom you compare them to. Estate House is not a Binkley's or Sea Saw, they are much more in line with T. Cook's and Lon's. And, the food at Estate is better than both of those places.

              2. re: sxfan


                That is exactly my point with the reference to a wine with "perfect varietal characteristics." If Pizzeria Bianco hit all of it's notes perfectly and mixes in soul, if one evaluates restaurants on the same "perfect varietal characteristics," then it could be 5 stars.

                If one rates all restaurants on the exact same scale, of food (regardless of type), service (regardless of type) and ambiance (regardless of type), then only fine-dining places can receive those 5 stars. All others will be graded down, because they are NOT fine-dining.

                It all depends on the reviewer's standards.

                That is why I want to see the descriptions of the the above criteria and could care less about stars, or whatever.


            2. Have to echo what boingo2000 and ejs1492 have said.

              It's really not possible to compare a sit-down place like Estate House with a pizza joint like Humble Pie. Both can get 4 stars, without any implication that the two restaurants are the equal of each (or that one is necessarily better than the other).

              Think about it this way. A Honda Accord can be scored a "great car" and a Rolls Royce can be scored a "great car" but no one will say that the Accod and the RR are the equal of one another. The Accord is a great car based on the parameters used to judge sedans in the 20k-30k price range; same with the Rolls, e.g. high-end luxury cruisers. Is the Accord better or worse than the Rolls? Well, it depends on what you need and want.

              Same with Estate House and Humble Pie.

              That being said, I think the words "Seftel" and "review" being used in the same sentence is an oxymoron, and an abuse of the English language.

              1. ill join in the chorus of i disagree as well. i think howard is really fair. he's got a solid set of journalistic ethics, he sticks to them, and he knows food. and he likes food. i don't get the impression he's holding out for another gig. he's a FOOD writer. period, end of sentence.

                the rest of the stable of azcentral/republic food writers? yipes!!! from an overreliance on chipper adjectives to a complete lack of understanding of food, its origins, or culture, etc, some columns are so poorly written its embarrassing. like the recent review of the roosevelt. come ON!!! matt pool has been extremely candid about not having much food there - thats the way they want it. so why review the food at a place INTENTIONALLY holding it back on the food front?

                seriously, i swear half of the food writers on azcentral got the short straw and ended up writing about food. clearly not their first choice.

                honestly when it comes to the republic and food writing, if seftel didn't write it, im personally of the opinion it doesn't bear reading.