The Death of the Star System

"Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air gives the hotel a serious restaurant and the chef an ideal California spot."

How many stars is that?

The Los Angeles Times recently ditched its star rating system. Russ Parsons, the food editor at the Times, says the system is dated, especially considering the rapid evolution of LA's dining scene.

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 place of stars, the Times will now issue a short summary of each review, which I cut and pasted into the start of this story. The short summary, which easily fits into the 140 character limit of a tweet, indicates a restaurant that is serious (is that good?), and also points toward some harmony between the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and his new location. It does not, however, reduce an evaluation down to the strict binary assessment of good or bad, though. Perhaps emoticons are next? :)

I think the move illuminates the dichotomy between two types of restaurant review readers. The first reader likes digesting reviews for their literary merit. They appreciate the structure and "nuanced critique" contained in a thoughtfully written review. The second just wants to know if they should eat at the damn place. Is it good, or is it not? This latter camp will now have to put a little more thought into their decision.

I find myself mixed on the matter. One of my favorite ways to navigate a new city's cuisine is to page through listings looking for high star ratings and low $ ratings. The strategy has almost always yielded a high percentage of thoughtful and good valued meals. I'll have to come up with a new way of sifting through a city's many restaurants, now -- at least when I'm visiting LA.

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