How Do the World’s Top Restaurant Rating Systems Compare?

When it comes to rating restaurants, we certainly are not short for choice. You have sites like Yelp, local bloggers who do restaurant reviews (a thankless job I did for several years in Edinburgh, Scotland), and then there are these variety of rating systems that attempt to set your expectations for the level of service you’ll receive, similar to the star ratings for hotels.

Today, as a foodie who likes to eat out on a regular basis and has lived in different parts of the word – some rankings are better in certain parts of the world than others – I’d like to share my experiences on how the world’s restaurant rating systems compare.

Note: I’m not including the health grading systems that some cities like New York use. Most of the establishments that end up on this list are very health conscious, though there have been prominent exceptions. And I’m leaving out Yelp – it could be a feature subject on its own – and just focusing on those rating systems prepared by a select set of curators.

Michelin Stars


Michelin is one of the oldest travel companies in the world – you did know they actually sell tires, right? – and given their history of publishing since 1900, they’ve had time to perfect the restaurant rating process, and out of any of the ratings systems, Michelin is the only system that is truly worldwide, from Lisbon to Los Angeles to Laos.

Michelin awards one, two, or three stars, and if you are at a restaurant that has even just one star, that’s major bragging rights – the company makes it very hard to obtain them, and also does vigorous quality checks and does not hesitate to take them away. Michelin reviewers are totally anonymous, and their rating is focused on only three things: quality of ingredients, mastery of cooking techniques, and the personality/consistency of food service. Michelin does not rate based on serivce, nor decor.

Many people say Michelin is biased towards French cuisine and very traditional fare, and there’s some evidence to substantiate that. However, Michelin ratings in Europe are spot on, and I have never had a bad experience. In the US, Michelin doesn’t have as much coverage or reach outside of New York or San Francisco.

The Bottom Line: If you’re in Europe and looking for somewhere special to eat, this is the rating system for you.

Zagat Ratings

Traditionally, my own personal tastes have aligned well with Zagat recommendations, and it used to be one of my favorite rating systems. Restaurateurs can submit their venues, but the editorial team also sources their own recommendations. Venues are given a numerical rating on three aspects: food, decor, and service and the company compiles numerous reviews to come up with these averages (so the numbers are not a single person’s opinion). I think the editors have always been quick to include smaller, unusual venues that many of the other rating systems do not favor (think food trucks, coffee bars, etc.).

Sadly, Zagat is not what it once was. In 2011, it was bought by Google, and slowly they’ve dropped much of their international coverage to focus on a select few American cities. While their recommendations are still good, I miss the robustness that they once had in their research.

The Bottom Line: Traveling in a US city or urban destination? Then definitely check out what Zagat has to say.

AAA Diamonds

aaa diamond
If you’ve ever been on a road trip in the United States, you no doubt have seen AAA Diamonds everywhere you went – AAA is ubiquitous in America. Restaurants pay a fee to AAA for inclusion, but paying does not guarantee acceptance. If included, restaurants receive one to five diamonds. This is similar to their hotel rating system, but a different checklist applies. Ratings are based on a checklist that is 80% focused on food and service, with 20% focus on decor and ambiance.

What’s nice about AAA is that their site inspections are unannounced and are rather comprehensive across all of North America, as well as the Caribbean; it includes everything from high end hotels to budget-friendly diners; I’ve been in locations where everyone is AAA diamond certified, which means you’ll still have to do some filtering before deciding on where to eat.

The Bottom Line: If you are visiting the Caribbean or taking a road trip in the US or Canada, look for AAA diamonds.

The San Pellegrino World’s Top 50 Restaurants


Last, but not least, I had to include this list because I can brag that I have been to 5 of the top 10 in this year’s list (the lead photo in this article is this year’s #1, Celler de can Roca). Any restaurant on this list is guaranteed to be a wonderful night of dining and memories, though getting on the reservations book for some of these restaurants requires deft maneuvering, and even then you might not get in.

The mission of this list is “to get people talking about restaurants, and to shine a bright light on excellence and innovation in an exciting industry.” Many of the restaurants featured include haute cuisine, molecular gastronomy, and more. In other words, perfect spots for milestone celebrations.

Restaurants can’t apply for an award; the list is chosen by voters from a group of 900 food critics, chefs, restauanteurs, and other “gastronomes” that is put together by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants organization. Voters rank their restaurant experiences without any checklist of criteria – it’s simply their opinions of their own experiences in the past 18 months – and they get to cast 7 votes. The only downside here is that with so many marketing dollars being pushed to promote these awards, the restaurants are all booked out solid, particularly the smaller venues.

The Bottom Line: Want to splash out and celebrate a milestone occasions? Then these are one of the 50 best places to do so. Plan ahead.

Do you use restaurant rating systems? If so, how? Share your opinions over on our Facebook page.