Why a restaurant reviewer’s “stars” mislead readers.
I’m still having a difficult time trying to explain the difference between “the best”, and “my favorites”. It gets even more complicated when I am asked to “rate” a restaurant with stars. Lets start there. Last week I was posting a comment about a restaurant on ChowHound, and the template I filled out requested that I assign a star rating to the restaurant. I really cannot see how you can compare all of the restaurants on a national stage using the same rating criteria. If you are comparing all restaurants in one town I suppose it makes some sense, but how could you compare a four star restaurant from New York City, or any large city, to just about any small town venue. The typical New York four star restaurant has a million dollar wine cellar, a million dollar payroll and the owners or backers spent many millions of dollars to build out the space. How do you compare that space to a typical small town restaurant?
I like to “grade on a curve”, but the class has to be restricted to similar places. For example, one of my favorite new restaurants is Bistro Tallulah in Glen Falls, NY. It is most certainly one of the better new restaurants in the area. How would it be judged in New York City? I think the Times might give it one star. But if I was a local reviewer, and gave it one star, the owners would be disappointed, if not angry, and the local readers would most certainly be misled. How many stars do you give one of the best restaurants in Glens Falls? Grading on a curve – three? four? On a national stage like Chowhound, or in any national journal, how do you compare Talulah’s to Daniel or Le Bernardin? You can’t.
More importantly, I think that it is important to differentiate between “the best” and “favorite” restaurants. None of my favorite restaurants have been awarded lots of stars by The Times or Michelin. My favorites are what this blog is all about. How much fun can you have in a four star restaurant? Think about it. Great food – yes. Great bottle of wine – yes. Over the top, professional service – yes. Fun? I don’t think so. My most enjoyable meals have invariably been in neighborhood bistro style restaurants with a solid kitchen and friendly wait staff. Give me a crock of cassoulet with some crusty peasant bread, a bottle of Beaujolais, and a table full of friends to swap stories with and now I’m having fun. You can’t picture that setting in a four star restaurant. It doesn’t happen.
If you’re like me you collect restaurant recommendations. I have a file of restaurants from different cities that have been mentioned somewhere that I file away for future reference. When the opportunity arises, I browse the files to decide where to eat. I very deliberately do not save reviews of “four star” restaurants. I go out of my way to visit bistro style restaurants that have been given one or two stars in the NY Times. Many remain on my list of favorites. None of my favorites are four star restaurants. Not even close. But that’s just me.
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