At The Motley Fool, we poke plenty of fun at Wall Street analysts and their endless cycle of upgrades, downgrades, and "initiating coverage at neutral." So you might think we'd be the last people to give virtual ink to such "news." And we would be -- if that were all we were doing.

But in "This Just In," we don't simply tell you what the analysts said. We'll also show you whether they know what they're talking about. To help, we've enlisted Motley Fool CAPS, our tool for rating stocks and analysts alike. With CAPS, we'll be tracking the long-term performance of Wall Street's best and brightest -- and its worst and sorriest, too.

And speaking of the best ...
Idiot savant (I'll explain in a moment) stock jock Cowen & Co. penned downgrades on three of the nation's trendier restaurant groups this morning: Cosi (Nasdaq: COSI), Caribou Coffee (Nasdaq: CBOU), and P.F. Chang's (Nasdaq: PFCB). Each got knocked down to a "neutral" rating.

At first glance, I'm inclined to agree with Cowen on these downgrades. None of the three restaurateurs generated a penny's worth of free cash flow last year, and only one of the three, P.F. Chang's, reported a profit under GAAP. (Yet for some reason, that didn't prevent Cowen from recommending the stocks in the first place.) Meanwhile, Cowen sees commodity price inflation and consumer wallet deflation as reasons to believe that matters won't improve in the near future.

That's actually the point
Then again, maybe there's a reason Cowen & Co. recommended these three cash flow-less and profitless wonders: Cowen's a lousy restaurant critic.

You see, when it comes to picking stocks, Cowen is a bit of an idiot savant. According to our records on CAPS, this analyst guesses wrong nearly twice as often as it guesses right -- its accuracy stands at 35%. Yet the analyst still places in the top half of investors on the strength of a very few picks that simply scream "Genius!"

Company

Cowen Said:

CAPS Says (out of 5):

Cowen's Pick Beating S&P by:

First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR)

Outperform

**

938 points

Intuitive Surgical

(Nasdaq: ISRG)

Outperform

****

247 points

Trina Solar

Outperform

**

63 points

As the hypergrowth investors at Motley Fool Rule Breakers can attest, a 10-bagger or two will make up for an awful lot of more minor mistakes -- and picks such as First Solar and Intuitive Surgical (incidentally, that's one from Rule Breakers) have done their part in neutralizing some of Cowen's mistakes, which include:

Company

Cowen Said:

CAPS Says (out of 5):

Cowen's Pick Lagging S&P by:

Kona Grill  (Nasdaq: KONA)

Outperform

****

41 points

BJ's Restaurants 

(Nasdaq: BJRI)

Outperform

**

11 points

Peet's Coffee & Tea 

Outperform

**

4 points

Kudos to whoever does the solar stocks at Cowen, by the way. But that doesn't change the fact that its in-house restaurant critic deserves the booby prize.

Name a restaurant pick on Cowen's CAPS scorecard, and it's losing to the market. Name two more that are not -- Cosi and Caribou -- and I'm unable to comment, because Briefing.com has no data on Cowen's having recommended them. Name a third, though -- P.F. Chang's -- and Briefing.com does have record of a Cowen rating. The analyst rated this one a "strong buy" in July 2002. But since that rating went into effect, the stock has underperformed the market by 50 percentage points. In my book, that makes Cowen 0-for-4 in restaurant picks, with two wild cards.

Foolish takeaway
This one's an easy call, folks. Unless you're talking solar stocks, and sometimes medical devices, don't eat Cowen's cooking. Cosi, Caribou, and P.F. Chang's may look dangerously overpriced -- to you, to me, and to the world -- but if contrarian indicator Cowen doesn't like them, they deserve a second look.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's ranked No. 1,708 out of more than 97,000 players. Intuitive Surgical is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.