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VOL. 127 | NO. 64 | Monday, April 2, 2012

Star Ratings Useful but Often Misleading

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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The big news recently in the restaurant world is that the Los Angeles Times is ditching the star ratings that accompany its restaurant reviews. Is this rash act the beginning of a revolution or the abandoning of a security blanket?

(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Here’s the paper’s explanation:

“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.”

So, it’s diversity that did in the dining stars. This position makes sense in several ways, though in my experience as a restaurant reviewer even a notional system as seemingly straightforward as a bunch of stars – or forks or chef’s hats – is fraught with ambiguity.

Most people crave order, or at least a quick comprehensible standard, so to follow a review of whatever sort with a simple indication that summarizes that whole experience should be helpful. The procedure ideally would mean glancing at the score the restaurant received and then reading the review and seeing how the two aspects coordinate. Sounds easy, but let’s look at the problems involved.

First is the complexity of the restaurant experience. While a written review can elaborate on all the facets of ambience, service and cuisine – cuisine being the most important – can a reviewer realistically epitomize those factors in one symbol? Can an average review be distilled to, say, two stars and make clear what the reviewer has in mind?

Second, as the L.A. Times writer indicated above, the wide range of eating experiences available to consumers and reviewers nowadays puts a great deal of stress on the reviewing process and its outcome. Locally, we could express the issue by asking if the same reviewing standards and star rating system or even the same reviewer can apply to, say, Chez Philippe, Tsunami, Fuel, Las Delicias and Alcenia’s?

It used to be the case that in the larger and more sophisticated cities – i.e., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco – the restaurant reviewers for the major newspapers and magazines only reviewed fine dining, “white tablecloth” restaurants, while other dining places were covered in sidebar columns or as briefs. In the towns and cities of the great heartland and its peripheries, however, reviewers were obliged to cover all the bases.

Boy, that situation has certainly changed. A few weeks ago, Sam Sifton, chief restaurant reviewer for The New York Times, reviewed Shake Shack, a burger place that’s part of the ubiquitous Danny Meyer’s dining empire. (Sifton awarded the establishment one star.) Reading that review, one wanted to say, “Welcome to the trenches, buster! It ain’t always foie gras with parsnip chips and huckleberry salsa.”

Third is the very nature of reviewing and the subjective process – read: “personal bias” – that informs the enterprise.

Provocative responses on dining blogs sometimes hinge on the idea that since restaurants are often individually or family-owned, because they open only at great risk and financial outlay, because independent restaurants depend so heavily on the energy and creativity of a chef and his staff, that it’s inappropriate to subject them to the cruelties of a hard-nosed and perhaps prejudiced or inexperienced non-cooking reviewer. I find this point-of-view nonsensical. Consumers want information and guidance – and some measure of knowledge, experience and good writing – and reviews from such critics can be extremely helpful and important.

On the other hand, in an age when the Internet provides anyone who wants to comment on a restaurant experience, good or bad, with a plethora of venues, when the range of blogs devoted solely to eating out proliferates, so-called professional reviewers must question and re-evaluate the practice and value of what they do.

But let’s get back to the stars.

When I started reviewing restaurants for The Commercial Appeal in January 1988, no star rating was in place. In 1998, after several years of intense debate among several editors and me, the four-star system was inaugurated, following this scheme: **** Exceptional; *** Excellent; ** Very Good; * Good; no stars, Fair or Poor. I thought it was necessary to have a “no star” category, because even one star should be understood as a sign of some merit. In truth, it took me a year to get used to the system and to feel comfortable with assigning the stars. I fudged a bit by incorporating categories of 2 ½ stars and 3 ½ stars, so there were actually seven levels.

Matters did not work out as we – my editors and me – had anticipated. Readers of the newspaper soon decided that a restaurant that received a one-star rating was essentially worthless and that even two stars didn’t signify much in the way of recommendation. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I met someone who said, “I won’t go to a restaurant that you don’t give 2 ½ stars or better,” I would be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean at this moment.

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