The central tension of restaurant star-rating systems tends to be between critic and reader: The former prefers to write informed, nuanced reviews to help discriminating diners better understand the complexities of the restaurant experience they’re considering. The latter just wants his/her dang stars — the classic, bottom-line summation that reduces an entire banquet of opinion into a digestible, bite-size nugget.
Those stars, in turn, can become a marketing tool for restaurants, a paddle for spanking sloppy chefs and a status symbol to show off at parties. (“Yes, we had an exquisite meal at Rasika last week, the only four-star Indian restaurant in Washington!”)
Given the popularity of astral-based ratings, it was something of a shock last week when the Los Angeles Times announced it was dropping its stars. Food editor Russ Parsons explained the decision in a short blog post:
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California — where your dinner choices might include a food truck, a neighborhood ethnic restaurant, a one-time-only pop-up run by a famous chef, and a palace of fine dining. Clearly, you can’t fairly assess all these using the same rating system. Furthermore, the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score. In its place, we’ll offer a short summary of the review.
You could speculate further on the Times’s decision, too: Jonathan Gold, after all, just rejoined the newspaper after, ahem, a star turn at the L.A. Weekly. His presence, not to mention his preference for funky, far-from-the-beaten-path restaurants where service can be little more than a dead-eye stare, would have further complicated the mystic, Ouija-board formulations for doling out restaurant stars.
You could even speculate that Parsons didn’t have much taste for stars in the first place, if you read between the lines of his December column in which he explained the paper’s position on anonymous critics following S. Irene Virbila’s unmasking.
So will the Times’s decision have any ripple effects with the major papers that still employ star ratings? Likely not. Parsons told me he had heard nothing from other food editors around the country. What’s more, veteran critic Michael Bauer, who doubles as the Food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, e-mailed me to say:
“Bottom line is as much as I’d love to do away with them for selfish reasons I think being forced to come up with a rating keeps us focused and makes us justify our words,” Bauer wrote. “I also think the public likes them, and contrary to what many believe, I don’t think it gives people an out from reading the reviews. I think they look at the rating and the rating encourages them to read.”
The Post’s food critic, Tom Sietsema, also supports star ratings. How could he not? He instituted them in 2003 “because I think they give readers an immediate sense of a restaurant; because they are simple and direct; and because stars are as close as we get in the States to a universal grading system for dining establishments.
“I also think stars make a critic more honest. There’s less wiggle room, less hedging, when a reviewer employs stars. The words have to support the rant or the rave,” Sietsema continued.
“One of the explanations for dropping stars had to do with the changes on the dining scene in Los Angeles. But D.C. has a lot of what Los Angeles does (in smaller quantities, of course). Whether I’m reviewing a French bistro or a food truck, I’m rating them in part on how they compare to other French bistros or food trucks, respectively.” Sietsema concluded.
Got a take on restaurant star ratings? Let us know in the comments.