Do We Need Restaurant Stars?

One of the big stories last week in the food world was the LA Times’ decision to stop including star ratings in its restaurant reviews. Russ Parsons, Food Editor for the LA Times blog, gave the following justification:

There are a couple of reasons for this. 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.

But many critics disagreed with the decision. Several critics acknowledged that assigning stars is difficult but that it forces them to give an overall impression instead of an “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” account. And readers tend to like the “star system” because reviewers often do not make their overall judgment clear in the review.

This debate reminds me of the debate about wine ratings, although a 5-star restaurant rating system is more manageable than the 20-point system used by wine critics. (Many use a 100 point system but only wines that score between 80 and 100 are included).  My view about restaurant stars is similar to my view on wine ratings. They are helpful to consumers looking for a quick impression, but by themselves do not convey much information.

A star system is inferior to a few well-chosen words. Phrases such as “among the best in the world”, “excellent for this type of cuisine, but lacking sophistication”, “striving for excellence but over-reaching, trying too hard”, “satisfying if it is in your neighborhood but not worth a trip”, “original and inventive yet priced for value”, convey more information than stars especially when accompanied by a thoughtful description of the details.

What stars, unlike prose, appear to allow the reader to do, is directly compare restaurants according to a linear scale—presumably a four-star is better than a three star. But the restaurant scene today is so diverse it is a bit of an illusion that a single scale can capture any relevant sense of “better”. Is the French Laundry better than Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo with its updated Mexican cuisine or the molecular creations of Wally Dufresne’s WD-50. They aim at different experiences. Arthur Bryant’s Kansas City Bar-B-Q might trump them all for a memorable experience. The differences in overall impression will not be captured by a star system because there is no single dimension that the stars track.

Of course if the aim of fine dining is to create a spectacle in which diners are entertained with the latest over-the-top cuisine, then perhaps the star system is measuring something. I suppose extravagance can be at least roughly measured along a single dimension. But in a food culture where innovation and interesting approaches to food can be found in food trucks, neighborhood bistros, and ethnic restaurants as well as temples of fine cuisine, numerical rankings seem less relevant.

The star system is bait for our love of competition. It is fun to argue about how many stars a restaurant receives compared to its rivals, and who gets hosed in the process, although it is not fun for the restaurants who lose out in this arbitrary competition. Although most people nod approvingly that there is no disputing taste, we in fact endlessly dispute taste. The star system, like the wine rating system, gives us the illusion that these debates can be settled by assigning a numerical ranking as if the appreciation of food and wine were a sporting event.

There is some entertainment value in that but it hardly counts as serious criticism.

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