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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

There's a National Kerfuffle About Restaurant Stars, and Why I Don't Care

Posted By on Tue, Mar 13, 2012 at 8:31 AM


If you hadn't heard, the LA Times, which recently hired Jonathan Gold away from our sister paper the LA Weekly, made the decision last week to drop assigning stars to restaurant reviews. "Star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California," food editor Russ Parsons wrote in the paper's announcement, "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."

This news has every newspaper in the country defending its position to keep or don't keep assigning stars to its restaurant reviews. So far, most of them have decided to keep the stars. As Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema told Post reporter Tim Carman, "I ... think stars make a critic more honest. There's less wiggle room, less hedging, when a reviewer employs stars."

Alt-weeklies like the SF Weekly, the LA Weekly, and every other paper I've written for have never assigned stars. Our movie critics don't assign stars. Our theater critics don't assign stars. Our book critics don't assign stars. Restaurant criticism, as far as I'm concerned, takes pretty much the same tack: If you get to the end of one of my reviews and you don't know how I feel about the restaurant I've just spent 1000 words writing about, then I've failed as a writer and cultural critic. 

A friend of mine did raise a valid concern. "If restaurant critics drop stars," she said, "they're ceding them to Yelpers." A good point -- but then again, Yelp's main strength is its collective opinion rather than any one or 547 individual reviews. Yelp can have the stars: I want the 1,000 words, and the chance to hold your interest for five to ten minutes.

Clearly, stars matter -- to some restaurants and to some readers. If I ruled the world, which I often do from my couch, I might take the same approach as the Michelin guides: Reserve a few stars to hand out only to restaurants that belong to a cadre shooting for formal perfection, both in their food and the service -- a kind of dining, incidentally, that is becoming increasingly rare. 

For the rest of the bistros, noodle joints, food trucks, and popups that most of us eat at 95 percent of the time, if you really need to see stars, read the review and make up your own.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.
Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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