Yesterday, The Dallas Morning News' GuideLive posted a link to a new Leslie Brenner review of Lucia to their Facebook page with the following words: "Dallas now has just two 5-star restaurants."
In the review, Brenner gushes over and over about how much she adores Lucia, then notes that several dishes were not up to par, which is a reasonable (and necessary) part of restaurant criticism. But then, using her imaginary self-aggrandizing power, she revokes the fifth star that she herself gave Lucia years ago.
When DMN states that "Dallas now has just two 5-star restaurants," they make this assertion as if it were a legitimate, quantifiable fact, as if any one person's temporary opinion can alter a restaurant's standing in the community. It has been said time and time again: The star rating system is antiquated and short-sighted, and it exists on the pretense that restaurant criticism is not based, at least in part, on personal taste. A restaurant can certainly be evaluated based on quantifiable things like execution and skill level. A well-written restaurant review can indeed be a powerful thing — when it sets the scene and gives context for a restaurant's place in the community, when it tells the story of a restaurant and how it came to be. After reading a great review, you feel something — if only just a momentary pang of hunger.
Criticism matters. Context matters. Stories matter. But why do we keep pretending the star rating does, too?
Much like a restaurant itself, reviews are filled with nuance. There's a reason the Observer's reviews clock in at 1,000 words each, far longer than most of our other stories. In such a subjective industry, there is a lot of gray area. A writer may explain, for instance, that a dish that wowed one night was executed poorly on another, which can be indicative of consistency issues. If critics were Yelpers, they'd just say, "This dish sucks" — but critics are not Yelp reviewers. They are professionals who understand complexity and subtlety. Boiling restaurant reviews down into an arbitrary number of asterisks flies in the face of all the hard work a critic has done to eat at a restaurant two, three, four times, delving deep into its story and the mission of its chef. And for some reason, chefs seem to care about these stars, too — critics can write an exceedingly positive restaurant review, but if the eatery is not awarded the number of stars the chef thinks they deserve, these full grown adults (often men) throw infantile tantrums.
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A restaurant's number of stars says nothing. So why do we perpetuate the myth that it does? I understand why DMN would refer to a restaurant as 4-star — it's their critic, after all — but why does Eater buy into it? We are, after all, able to think for ourselves. Why does anyone care?
"... Stars mean national attention and invitations to panels and festivals. Stars mean business travelers. Stars mean money," Zac Crain wrote in a D Magazine piece about Leslie Brenner's now infamous battle with Dallas chefs about this very system. I can surely see this as being true for an internationally recognized rating system like the Michelin Guide — although, as a food journalist, I don't care about that, either. I have not, nor will I ever, select a restaurant based on the number of stars it was given by a group of upper middle class diners.
Had the Observer utilized the star system when I was brought on as food editor three months ago, I would have killed it immediately. Aside from the fact that it lacks nuance, it perpetuates this idea that critics are omniscient, all powerful beings. That may have been true for the old guard, but times have changed. Consumers are far more informed because we have so much information — from so many sources — at our fingertips.
Is anyone canceling their hard-to-get Lucia reservation because of Brenner's latest rating? Hardly. Hell, I sat on the phone for 20 minutes on Tuesday just to get my own reservation — and I'm counting down the days until my meal on June 2. If it makes you hesitant diners feel any better, I'll assign my meal a star value when I'm finished, and we can all pretend that it matters.