As of this week, the LA Times announces, it will no longer run star ratings with restaurant reviews.
From the announcement: "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."
Star rating systems are reductive and have always been. As a writer, it's a strange exercise to finish a review and then attempt to condense whatever one has just spent hours mulling into one concise astral projection. There is just not a lot of leeway in four stars, even with half-stars awarded. Most every week, I find myself wishing for quarter-stars. And it has become particularly ridiculous, as the LA Times points out, when the stars pertain to apples and oranges. Fewer fine dining restaurants are opening. How to make the same standard work for a pub offering upscale comfort food and a Relais & Chateaux property like Menton? (When assessing, I tend to ask myself this question: How successfully does the restaurant achieve what it is trying to achieve?)
I suspect it's no accident that this happens just as Pulitzer-winning critic Jonathan Gold joins the LA Times staff. His first column is out Saturday (you can read it now if you're an LA Times member). Although it's still not entirely clear how he will share duties with LAT restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, his free-range roving of the city is particularly at odds with a star rating system. He's just as likely to write about a taco stand serving amazing birria as he is about a high-end French restaurant.
I don't expect we'll see stars disappear at the Globe any time soon. They are a useful -- if occasionally misleading -- tool for readers, functioning in a similar way to a headline. (Instead of star ratings, the LA Times will offer a short summary of the review, for those who like their information in eyefuls.) Plus, they're fun to argue about, roll your eyes at, celebrate, and discuss. Of all the messages I receive, the second most common is probably: "How could you give Restaurant X that number of stars?"
The first might be: "Where is a good place to take my grandmother for dinner in the North End? She is turning 80. We have a party of 17 people. Some of them have food allergies, so it can't be a place that serves eggs, nuts, wheat, or dairy. Four are extremely picky eaters. Five are gourmet snobs. We have teenagers, so the place has to be fun. And babies, so we need high chairs. We don't want to spend more than $10 per person. Where should we go?" Or some variation on that theme. It always involves the North End, however. If some restaurateur wants to make a killing, open a restaurant in that neighborhood that accommodates the above party.
I will give you four stars.
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ContributorsSheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.
Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.
Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.