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Star Ratings - Isn't There A Better Way


weinoo
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Whether or not chefs are for or against star ratings is irrelevant. They don't get to decide what's an insult to gastronomy. Most of them aren't even well-suited to making determinations like that. Quantitative ratings for art are insulting to art. Whether or not the artists agree, or know enough to agree or disagree, doesn't affect that determination.

Sure it does. I should think that if numerical/star ratings are an insult, the feelings of those to whom the offense is purportedly directed ought to count for something. If there aren't very many of them saying, "I am insulted by this," then maybe it just isn't that insulting.

It isn't so much that chefs (or, more to the point, chef/owners) are being insulted, but that gastronomy is being insulted.

I'll bet there are gallery owners who would like numeric ratings for paintings and sculpture. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be an insult to the visual arts.

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It isn't so much that chefs (or, more to the point, chef/owners) are being insulted, but that gastronomy is being insulted.

But chefs are the practitioners of gastronomy. If they found it insulting to be rated in this fashion, you'd expect a lot more of them to speak up. Gastronomy doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is created by those people, whom we call chefs. By and large, they are pleased to be rated in this fashion—except, of course, when they feel their rating is too low!

If chefs don't object, who will? Customers overwhelmingly prefer ratings. That is why you see publications adding them that didn't have them before. The only newspaper I'm aware of that dropped ratings (the New York Post) recently re-introduced them in response to reader demand.

I'll bet there are gallery owners who would like numeric ratings for paintings and sculpture. That doesn't mean it wouldn't be an insult to the visual arts.

If the professional practitioners in this field (including painters and sculptors) held this view, wouldn't it be highly relevant?

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...most importantly that they are self-defeating for critics: that once you reduce real criticism to numbers you create the conditions for not needing real criticism.

This is where those who award stars have traditionally fallen down on the job. The New York Times and others should at least try to explain their star systems better, rather than simply issue smug and murky verdicts that are less useful than they can be.

Whether or not people enjoyed her reviews, I believe the only NY restaurant critic who never awarded stars during 40 years of writing reviews for NY Mag was Gael Greene.

And I'm pretty certain that the reason was because she felt people ought to read the reviews rather than just look for stars.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I believe Gourmet, over the course of many years of reviewing restaurants, never awarded stars or ranked numerically.

I think that, all other things being equal -- awareness of the issues, ability to separate personal short-term business gain from long-term issues of theory, etc. -- a practitioner's opinion about any given creative endeavor carries more weight than the opinion of a non-practitioner. But those things tend not to be equal. There's no need to insult chefs, musicians or any other group of creative artists to say that. Practitioners tend to be hard-working people concerned about the next paycheck. They create the art but at the same time tend to focus on the practical and short-term. And we already know that, practically and in the short-term, stars are good for business.

That's what even the most academic of chefs and restaurateurs will tell you off record: they think the stars are silly and reductive, but they're good for business. On record you'll not likely get anything out of people in the industry, because they're not about to try to fight city hall. Nor should they be expected to.

Chefs and restaurateurs are practitioners of gastronomy, but gastronomy as an art exists separate from them and separate from any other group of people such as consumers or critics. Judgments about gastronomy, what's good for it, bad for it, supportive of it, insulting to it, need to be made on the merits of the arguments, not based on opinion polls of any given group.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Chefs and restaurateurs are practitioners of gastronomy, but gastronomy as an art exists separate from them and separate from any other group of people such as consumers or critics.

Isn't it actually the opposite? I mean, if you subtract chefs, what exactly is gastronomy left with? The answer, it appears, is nothing.

I do agree that gastronomy exists separate from restaurateurs, since chefs need not practice their art in a restaurant setting. But without chefs, what does gastronomy consist of?

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I'm wondering if perhaps the use of a 50 or 100 point rating system, ala Iron Chef, would work. That is, a restaurant is given 1 - 10 (or 1 - 20) points on various aspects of the experience

Separate points:

1. We've been far down that road, with systems and false starts and surprises, in wine criticism since the 1960s, a history much too complex to summarize here; it didn't work. Mainstream US wine criticism segued from the abortive UC-Davis 20-pt scale related to weinoo's proposal, to a widespread practice similar to "stars," to an (I believe) Australian-born finer scale nominally 100 points (later popularized in the US). Rating taste impressions in a very quantitative-looking way impresses newcomers, but objective basis (even repeatability by the same critic, tested blind) is lacking. US wine consumers today focus on ranges within the top 20 or so of 100 points -- thus effectively using it as a much coarser scale.

2. I believe D. Goldfarb, jsmeeker, Sneakeater et al. are absolutely right that numbers trivialize a rating compared to narrative. But they're the sort of simple guidance US consumers, at least, clamor for, rewarding their use. (One of several competing US wine critics as of 1980 gained greater popularity using a "100-point" scale and decisive, categorical judgments. If you don't think that sells, ask any wine merchant about the relationship of "point scores" to demand, and consequently their effect on prices. Same wine critic even lamented people ignoring his words in favor of his numbers!)

3. Historically, I think the Guide Michelin popularized "stars" many decades ago. Or overpopularized them: Presented as supplemental flags in addition to main ratings of food etc. (1 to 5 "forks"), they came instead to be seen as the main point by casual tourists who again preferred simple guidance, over the Guide's more detailed review ratings and commentaries.

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I believe Gourmet, over the course of many years of reviewing restaurants, never awarded stars or ranked numerically.

I think that, all other things being equal -- awareness of the issues, ability to separate personal short-term business gain from long-term issues of theory, etc. -- a practitioner's opinion about any given creative endeavor carries more weight than the opinion of a non-practitioner. But those things tend not to be equal. There's no need to insult chefs, musicians or any other group of creative artists to say that. Practitioners tend to be hard-working people concerned about the next paycheck. They create the art but at the same time tend to focus on the practical and short-term. And we already know that, practically and in the short-term, stars are good for business.

That's what even the most academic of chefs and restaurateurs will tell you off record: they think the stars are silly and reductive, but they're good for business. On record you'll not likely get anything out of people in the industry, because they're not about to try to fight city hall. Nor should they be expected to.

Chefs and restaurateurs are practitioners of gastronomy, but gastronomy as an art exists separate from them and separate from any other group of people such as consumers or critics. Judgments about gastronomy, what's good for it, bad for it, supportive of it, insulting to it, need to be made on the merits of the arguments, not based on opinion polls of any given group.

There's a fairly famous remark made by the composer Sibelius.

He much preferred the company of bankers to that of artists, he said. Bankers like to talk about art, he explained. Whereas artists only want to talk about money.

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I like reading reviews. And I like seeing stars (or forks or whatever). The rating system gives me a good umbrella sense of the restaurant while the review fleshes out the whys. My preference is for reviews that give different stars to different aspects (food, service, etc.) such as what the SF Chronicle uses over the single rating system of the NY Times which ends up clumping all aspects of the dining experience together.

The argument makes it sound like one must either be a refined intellectual, savoring the nuance of the written word, or a coarse illiterate. I would rather have *all* the information I could possibly have, which means both the objectivity of the rating system backed by descriptive prose.

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. . .My preference is for reviews that give different stars to different aspects (food, service, etc.) such as what the SF Chronicle uses over the single rating system of the NY Times which ends up clumping all aspects of the dining experience together.

As I recall, the Chronicle still awards an overall star, doesn't it?

I agree, though, that ratings for different aspects of the dining experience is very helpful. I especially liked it when the Chron started listing noise levels.

I should say that I don't really like restaurant reviews in and of themselves. I generally don't read them unless I'm considering the restaurant, and I certainly don't read them for literary value. For me, what's important from a review is that I get an idea of what to expect if I go to the reviewed restaurant. It sounds obvious, but often I really don't; sometimes it seems that the reviewer is trying so hard to be clever and "literary" that his or her opinions get lost in murky and pretentious prose. My primary experience has been with the San Francisco Chronicle, and frankly, Michael Bauer is such a poor writer that often I'd read his reviews and have no idea what he was trying to say. (I have to admit that I had the same reaction with the Sam Sifton review of Boulud's new place.) So, in that sense it's nice to have some kind of recap at the end, just in case.

But a single star system is a really poor way to recap a review. What I think would be best would be if a review was followed by a breakdown according to food quality, beverage program, service, and ambiance/atmosphere. Not stars (although that would be better than nothing), but a short sentence about each aspect.

So, if one didn't have time to read the whole review (or if it was confusing or poorly written), I could still skip to the end and see something like:

Food: Everything we tried was good. Some average selections, but no big misses, and some really outstanding dishes.

Service: Servers were friendly for the most part, but the service wasn't particularly professional, and there were some significant timing issues.

Ambiance: Restaurant was loud and bustling.

Beverage program: Full bar, but cocktails were pedestrian. Wine list was mediocre. Great beer selection.

That way, I'd know that if I was most interested in good food, it would be worth checking out. For a quiet dinner for my parents' anniversary, not a good choice. Likewise if I required a good wine selection.

Even if the star system is broken down into categories, seeing -- for instance -- one star for service doesn't tell me if the problem is condescending waiters, bad kitchen coordination or something else. Two stars for wine doesn't tell me if the wine selection is good, but limited; or good, but overpriced.

Of course, I'd still have to figure out if the reviewer's opinions matched mine, but at least I'd have a head start.

Ideally, one should be able to get this from the review in full, but that's seldom been my experience.

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I'm surprised you'd say that about Sifton's DBGB review, Janet.

I don't know whether it hurts or helps that I'd been to the restaurant several times before the review came out, but I thought it gave a pretty vivid picture of what eating there is like. (The only thing I think he underemphasized is the din in the bar area -- which is not felt in the dining room.)

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i think it gives the chef and restaurateur something to achieve, a mark to get to. without it we would just go by whatever the current critics say about it which is one persons opinion of one meal. not to say that by giving somewhere a rating it makes it more than one persons opinion on several meals i just think people think that by having a rating its easier to publicise and there gain recognition for what you have accomplished. chefs dont seem to brag about certain sentences that critics write about them.

i do think a ratings out of 3 are totally daft but nonetheless it seems to be the one that every chef wants and aspires to even if its utter tripe.

personally id rather read a review than look at rating as you get a glimpse of the experience rather than the conclusion. i dont go to restaurant to walk out and shout FOUR OUT OF FIVE and continue with my day.

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I would rather have *all* the information I could possibly have, which means both the objectivity of the rating system backed by descriptive prose.

I'm with you in wanting all possible info, Hest88. Your wording though raises another issue.

I'm wondering, seriously, what's more "objective" in a number or star rating, compared to words. It's quantitative, but that's different. I know for wine, when the new numerical "ratings" began catching on in 1980s US, many consumers who were already wine-knowledgeable more or less rolled their eyes and never took to the idea (I talk to many such people in the US today).* There's something fundamentally artificial about it. Analogy: How would you measure a person with a single number? You can objectively (i.e., outside of individual opinion) gauge height, age, weight, etc. None is even close to describing the whole person. Wines and restaurants may be less complex than people, but have the same issue. (The simplicity of numerical ratings did serve the hunger for easy wine guidance, and people who used them so would claim things about objectivity, but the objectivity was easy to disprove.) I could get along with a set of simple ratings for different aspects of restaurants (or wines) -- but that defeats the very simplicity, the sense of an expert making the call for you, that some consumers want.

* One comment on then-new numerical wine ratings was by Gerald Asher, wine editor at Gourmet. I saved it at the time (syndicated newspaper column "Table Talk on Wine Comes Cheap," 21 Jan 1987):

"But ... how else can I explain my ease in conjuring up the amusingly presumptuous taste of Thurber's 'naive little domestic Burgundy' when I can't catch even a ghostly whiff of the [1983 wine] authoritatively and precisely described in a wine newsletter a few weeks ago as '86.' "

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I'm wondering, seriously, what's more "objective" in a number or star rating, compared to words.

You're right. I wrote that too fast. When I think about it it's really not the feeling of objectivity I like; it's rather more about how it sums up the dining experience. In fact, in some ways it's probably the opposite of objectivity that I'm looking for, and more along the lines of the reviewer's final gut conclusion to his experience.

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To be fair, the flip side: while language may convey much more information than a simple number, that's not exactly guaranteed.

The late popular iconoclastic New York wine writer Alexis Bespaloff, who was most active in the 1960s and 70s, raised that point sharply. Quoting someone's review of a bottle from a certain region, written in long evocative prose about how much the writer enjoyed the wine, Bespaloff remarked wryly that it would have been more helpful to consumers had the writer included some description. Was the wine red or white, for starters.

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I think, overall, I would like to see stars or numbers appear in a series of categories, maybe a lot of categories. And, I do NOT want those categories aggregated into one master score!

I know of a very tiny Persian place where the chef and his son run the whole show. Oftentimes, the chef himself takes your order and delivers it to your table. The chef is very considerate and thoughtful, and very skilled as a waiter. That said, he also spends some time actually cooking your meal, so, your water glass may not get refilled with a lot of speed. If you are used to high-end experiences, and this place is NOT cheap, you may perceive some rough patches. I'd give the place high marks for the attitude and attentiveness of the service, but, maybe a lower mark for the amount of staff in the dining room. (it gets a bit wild when the place is full)

In the same place, the location is small and in a strip mall, so the ambiance is okay for what they have to deal with but, they didn't do a dedicated remodel and it still feels like a strip mall retail space. That said, each table has a hand-embroidered tablecloth and every napkin is a hand-embroidered cloth napkin -not linens from an ordinary service. The glasses and plates are very high quality. So, it's not a location to impress my friend the Prince (I am not saying of where.) but, if he goes there with me, we get accouterments that make him feel comfortable. So, it might rate lower as not being an impressive locale, but pretty high in terms of attention to detail and what's on the table itself.

In some ways, we have gotten used to using star systems as a shorthand for quality, or the lack thereof. It's an easy way to say that maybe the place is great or maybe it's not worth it. I'd like to see it refined by giving more details: is it fast-casual, is it formal, is the staff snooty, etc.???

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