Two of San Francisco's (increasingly rare) faceless critics, the Chronicle's Michael Bauer and SF Weekly's Jonathan Kauffman, face off today regarding the star system for restaurant reviews. Why? Because the LA Times (who recently acquired sanctified Pulitzer winner Jonathan Gold, the yardstick by which all food writers measure themselves, whether they admit it or not) now eschews the star system.
The LAT's Daily Dish food blog explains:
Starting this week, The Times will no longer run star ratings with our restaurant reviews. 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.
Not kosher, says Bauer. Over at Inside Scoop, he defends his stars thusly:
As a critic stars make us get off the fence and distill what we think into a concise rating. Yes, it may shortcut the review, and many people will start by looking at the rating, but I also think they go back and read the review. Giving a summary of the review, as the Times intends to do, doesn’t seem to make it even more likely the people won’t read the reviews. However, forgoing ratings lets the critic off the hook. I’m not sure whether that’s good for readers, or what readers want.
Pshaw, replies Kauffman. Comparing restaurants reviews to theater and book criticism, he notes:
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.
As for us? Well, we love a star rating. We do. Because we're lazy. Outside of reading countless items each day for this marvelous blog you're now reading, we do enjoy skimming the occasional zero- or four-star review for their unapologetic audacity. (For example, Morton's supernova and Benu's four-star upgrade.) For the non-foodie or non-inside-baseball reader, they're both entertaining, satisfying pieces based on their ratings. Otherwise, we totally see from where Kauffman is coming.