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In this edition of Tabletop Wrestling, Hanna Raskin and Mike Seely take up the topic of starred restaurant reviews.
Hanna Raskin favors star systems.
I feel much the same way about assigning stars to reviews as I do about running a marathon or joining the Peace Corps: I think it's a great idea, but since I've never done it, I have no idea how much hardship the activity actually involves.
Yet from what I understand from my colleagues at daily newspapers, where stars are nearly inescapable, the difficulty of settling on a star rating is offset by the clarity that comes with thinking very, very hard about how many stars a restaurant deserves.
And what really matters is not how much reviewers like giving stars, but how much readers appreciate getting them: There are plenty of diners who just want to know whether or not a restaurant is worth visiting. Trying to prod those readers to wade through 1,100 words dissecting a restaurant's nuances by withholding a star rating is a futile, self-serving habit. Obviously, a review is far more revealing than a number, but we live in a country where Cliffs Notes -- at least in its pre-digital incarnation -- sold five million pamphlets a year. If Shakespeare can survive abridgment, we newspaper hacks probably can too.
Starred reviews generated lots of chatter last March, when the Los Angeles Times dropped its rating system, explaining it was impossible to assess pop-up restaurants, dumpling joints and upscale dining rooms with the same measuring stick. (Since then, sensing an opening, the L.A. Weekly has added stars, becoming one of the few alt-weeklies nationwide to do so.) Readers and food writers who applauded the Times' decision variously argued that art shouldn't be degraded by rankings, and that stars endow opinions with an unearned air of objectivity.
Those contentions don't sway me, but I recognize no star system is perfect. I prefer the systems which make allowances for how and why we eat; For example, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, two stars doesn't mean a restaurant is just barely better than acceptable. It means the restaurant is "a worthy addition to its neighborhood, and the food is consistent." Or, as critic John Kessler explained in a post outlining the system, "a two-star restaurant might be a great neighborhood sandwich shop, or it might be an expensive bistro that doesn't quite deliver the goods." Ratings run from zero to five stars, so the AJC doesn't have to mess with the half-stars which clutter many four-star sytems.
Still, even the most carefully-designed system can't sidestep perhaps the biggest problem posed by stars. Once a star rating is assigned to a restaurant, it hangs on like a neodymium magnet. So if a critic in 1983 gave four stars to a restaurant for having the courage to serve sushi, it would likely still be archived as a four-star restaurant long after California rolls had ceased to be the hallmark of a great place to eat.
But while keeping databases current is sometimes troublesome, it's not reason enough to deny readers and restaurateurs their stars. After all, with so much attention paid to food these days, they could use something else about which to argue.
But Mike Seely is opposed to reducing reviews to numbers.
"Trying to prod those readers to wade through 1,100 words dissecting a restaurant's nuances by withholding a star rating is a futile, self-serving habit."
I politely disagree, ma'am. We newpapermen (and women) have an obligation to stem the tide of ever-shortening American attention spans, and forcing them to sit down for 10 minutes to read about a restaurant's strengths and weaknesses is a win-win-win--for the reader's mind, for the critic who took the time to visit and write about the place, and, perhaps most importantly, for restaurateurs who stake their lives on plates. To reduce their handiwork to a series of stars cheapens whatever fuller-throated assessment might follow, and, worse yet, will discourage most readers from, well, reading.
In, say, a Zagat Guide, however, I can appreciate the value of a star system--or, in Zagat's case, a like-minded point system. They're attempting to cover an entire city's worth of restaurants in a finite amount of space, and their guide has tremendous utility for tourists. But as long as I'm editor of Seattle Weekly*, we will not be implementing a star system, as to present our opinions in anything but the most unwieldy of forms is to insult the intelligence of our fiercely local, fiercely loyal readership.