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Making AAA Diamond Ratings: Behind the Scenes of a Restaurant Review

Dinner with a AAA inspector provides an inside look at how AAA Diamond Ratings are determined.

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When visiting a restaurant or hotel, we all do our own inspection. Is the service good? Are you getting the most for your money? Is it clean? Whether we’re paying luxury or budget prices, we all have basic expectations when it comes to the places where we pay to dine and sleep.

That’s the start of a AAA Diamond Rating. AAA’s system of hospitality evaluations is based on the standards and priorities that you – the typical guest – look for. Put those guidelines in the very capable hands of AAA’s squad of professional inspectors, and you have a ratings system that you can trust.

I recently had the chance to tag along with Inspector 593* for her review of The Inn at Pound Ridge, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant in the small town of its namesake in Westchester, N.Y. Now I’m inviting you to the table for an up-close look at how AAA restaurant ratings are determined.

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*To maintain their anonymity, AAA inspectors are referred to by their designated number.

Inspector 593. All AAA inspections are unannounced and anonymous to ensure the most authentic experience

In her eight years as a AAA inspector, Inspector 593 has reviewed hundreds of hotels and restaurants. An average day at the office (i.e. her car) includes driving around her assigned territory to review a minimum of four establishments per day, typically three hotels and one restaurant. With each covering a designated region, there is an inspector behind the nearly 59,000 AAA Approved and Diamond Rated hotels and restaurants throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

Like most inspectors, her background is in hospitality, and like all others in the position she has been thoroughly trained to complete AAA’s rigorous evaluation process. But more than anything, she says, those looking to take on the job must be willing and able to live the demanding lifestyle.

Because as fun as enjoying top-rated restaurants and hotels for work may seem – and make no mistake, it definitely is – it’s not always all that easy or glamorous. Inspector life is a commitment that requires a lot of time on the road and many miles logged.

AAA Diamond Ratings: A seat at the table

I hopped into Inspector 593’s “office” and we drove up to the restaurant together, making our way through the narrow, rural roads to the town of Pound Ridge, which sits right on the edge of where New York and Connecticut meet.

It had been a couple years since the Three Diamond Rated restaurant was reviewed and it was time for a checkup. Restaurant inspections are conducted routinely, with frequency determined by the current rating and whenever there are significant changes like a new owner or menu. Four and Five Diamond properties are reviewed yearly to see if they remain up to snuff.

Inspector 593 described The Inn at Pound Ridge as “on the bubble,” meaning that based on the current AAA Diamond Rating and research, it could easily tip over into the Four Diamond range if the food and service exceeded a certain point. We were both excited to see if it would.

Located in an 1833 former residence and inn, The Inn at Pound Ridge fits right in with its quaint surroundings of charming older homes and historic buildings. But despite its quiet location and an early dinner reservation, the restaurant quickly became busy.

As the dining room filled with large parties celebrating milestones and couples enjoying date nights, Inspector 593 explained that this – a local hot spot, with a top chef owner to boot – is exactly the type of place that catches AAA’s eye. “A restaurant in some tiny town outside of Connecticut that’s crowded on a Monday night. That needs to be listed.”

The Inn at Pound Ridge reflects current trends seen throughout the restaurant industry, serving high-scale, seasonal cuisine in a laid-back atmosphere. AAA Diamond Rating guidelines stay up-to-date on the latest conventions such as these and factors them into the overall rating. Food, service, trends – basically, whatever customers are looking for, AAA is looking for, too.

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The dining room at The Inn at Pound Ridge. (Photo: The Inn at Pound Ridge / Francesco Tonelli)

Inspector 593 acted casual, but I could tell that she was keeping close tabs on every detail from the moment we pulled up to the door and walked in. Was the valet fast and friendly? Did the hostess have the details of the reservation correct? Did they ask to take our coats? Check, check and check. The inspection was off to a good start.

Since all inspections are unannounced and anonymous to ensure the most authentic experience, a certain level of sneakiness is required. So I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when my diligent colleague pulled out her laptop and started to mark her checklist right there at the table.

Maybe it was because I was in on the secret that I felt a bit nervous, but she assured me that it is common practice when the inspection allows. Years ago it would have been a giveaway, but in the age of remote business and Instagram the staff doesn’t think twice about seeing someone out to dinner with their laptop or tablet – or taking pictures of their food (guilty).

Dinner consisted of homemade burrata cheese and crispy sushi and salmon starters, followed by crusted chicken breast with lemon sauce and artichoke hearts for me and rigatoni with meatballs for her. The selection of appetizers and small plates were the real standouts, as were an impressive list of wines, handcrafted cocktails and even sodas (I was a fan of the cherry yuzu soda). And I’m still thinking about the sundae with housemade salted caramel ice cream, caramel popcorn and fudge that I had for dessert.

Inspector 593 carefully scanned the menu, checking to see if it was updated daily or weekly, instead of seasonally, and searching for the obvious use of local ingredients and regional wines. She also kept a close watch on the staff throughout the meal, observing the shift in service as the restaurant became more crowded. When a restaurant is resting “on the bubble,” these are all details that could elevate a Three Diamond Restaurant to the next level.

She noted a lag in service as the surrounding tables were seated, but was impressed by the watchful and helpful bus staff. And although most of the food received a hearty thumbs up for taste, she remarked that the large portion sizes could get in the way of diners enjoying a full dining experience.

Getting to know the AAA Diamonds & how AAA Diamond Ratings are determined

After all was said and done, The Inn at Pound Ridge held on to its title as a Three Diamond Rated property. Check out the newly updated post and inspector notes here.

While AAA’s Four and Five Diamond Ratings are the most coveted and best-known, Three Diamond – considered an intro to fine dining – is no small feat. In fact, any Diamond is a good Diamond.

Unlike user-generated websites that weigh an average that represents good or bad, Diamond Ratings generally signify price range. So One Diamond eateries are considered among the best for quick-service, while AAA Five Diamonds top the list of fine dining restaurants.

Click here for a breakdown of what each Diamond Rating means.

The Diamond Rating guidelines that inspectors follow are updated about every five years. They’re calculated from a formula based on studies that show AAA members’ priorities when dining out, as well as industry trends. The research shows that AAA members consider the quality of the food and service to be more significant to the overall experience than the décor, and so the highest value (85 percent) is placed on the former. And if a restaurant doesn’t meet all of the standards, it doesn’t get listed.

The value of a AAA Diamond Rating

There are plenty of forums on the internet where people can voice their personal “inspections,” openly hyping – or tearing down – a restaurant. These reviews can be biased and sometimes dishonest, yet when looking for a place to eat, many of us will admit to Googling restaurants and letting the stars guide us to our destination.

Sitting beside Inspector 593 as she expertly traversed the inspection, I can tell you that behind every AAA Diamond Rating is a real person. Yes, they are real people who have been to a lot of hotels and restaurants (AAA inspectors review 30,000 restaurants, collectively, per year!), but their experience is part of what makes them so good at what they do. And their reviews are always objective.

AAA inspectors take every meal and hotel stay personally to deliver honest feedback that’s based on an authentic experience.

“The members are literally always on my mind,” said Inspector 593. “It’s not just what I like. It’s what meets [AAA’s] standards, exceeds our standards and what our members expect from us.”

It’s kind of like having a well-traveled friend with high expectations; the type of person you would go to for a good recommendation.

How to find restaurants with AAA Diamond Ratings near you

The next time you’re searching for a restaurant (or hotel), add this site to the top of your list: AAA.com/Diamonds.

The recently revamped website makes it easier than ever to find exactly what you’re looking for. Using the Restaurant Search option, simply type in your location and whatever cuisine you’re in the mood for and a list of restaurants in your area will pop up, along with inspector notes and the option to book your reservation through Open Table where available.

You can also find information on Diamond Rated establishments on the AAA Mobile app. Inspector 593 praised the app, which she talked about using to find dining in any city she happens to be in at the moment. “The best part is that it allows me to save restaurants that I find interesting so I can quickly find them later,” she said. “I love it and use it all the time in my travels and when I’m working from home.”

To use the AAA Mobile app to find nearby restaurants anywhere in country, select the fork icon under Maps and Directions. The app is available for download on iPhone and Android at AAA.com/Mobile.

Follow the inspectors

Go on your own “inspector shadow.” Stay in touch with the inspectors on social media, where they share photos and notes of the places they’re staying and what they’re eating.

Follow their adventures on Twitter @AAA_Travel, Instagram @AAA_National and Pinterest.

Do you take notice of AAA Diamond Ratings when dining out or refer to them as a guide before you pick a restaurant? Tell us in the comments.

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