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Thursday, November 18, 2010

DeRushaEats: What Does a Four Star Rating Mean to You?

In the chef/critic world, much helvetica has been spilled writing about critics' scores. Do four stars mean perfection? Do Minnesota critics score on a curve? So would four stars here mean the same as four stars in New York?

In case you haven't been reading the back-and-forth on this, it started with Stewart "Shefzilla" Woodman mocking a high score on MSP Mag's "restaurant rater" for the new Heartland.

“It just got a 97 points, they are clearly operating at an extraordinarily high level, at least as high as Le Bernardin or Alinea, I, we have gotta get there. 97 points is nearly flawless, there are not two 97 points, their is only one."

Andrew Zimmern responded, essentially telling Shefzilla to chilla out.

"I don’t think Heartland is in Alinea’s class, as Stew wonders out loud, and numerically codifying restaurants is indeed troubling on many levels."

Then Stewart writes again, complaining that the average Star Tribune star ratings of MSP restaurants is higher than the average NYT reviews.

Lenny Russo then gets involved.

"So does a four star review intend to say that a restaurant is perfect? I think not since perfection is an unattainable goal. To be sure, the standard is perfection, and I go to the restaurant every day with the expectation that we will be perfect."

I'm getting dizzy from all of this.

Anyway, I raise the issue here because I'm lucky enough to not have to attach a letter grade or a score to my suburban dining reviews. In print, I'm not trying to compare a suburban restaurant like BLVD or Nectar to a city restaurant. I live in Maple Grove. I can tell you that most of my neighbors are not deciding whether to go to Pittsburgh Blue or La Belle Vie. I believe people want to know if there are dishes they should order when they go to a restaurant relatively close to their home.

It would be impossible to put a grade on a suburban dining review and have that next to one of Dara's reviews of our city/finer-dining restaurants. Well, I could, but you'd see a lot of C grades, right? And how useful is that?

When I see a four-star review in the paper, it tells me: definitely check this place out. When I see three-and-a-half stars it says: check this place out. When I see three stars, I think: probably check this place out. That's it.

Do you pay that much attention to stars? Who do you think the critic should serve, the fine dining foodies or the average reader looking for a recommendation?

P.S. Not sure if this is a good or awful time to mention that readers can now give the restaurants in MNMO's online database a star rating... But so be it. You can.

Posted on Thursday, November 18, 2010 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Nov 18, 2010 04:21 pm
 Posted by  Sara M.

Oh, alright, I'll bite - there's a reason why the NYTimes doesn't give movies ratings: The idea is that you'll READ the review and develop your own opinion of the film. Now, they do use a star rating system for restaurants, but I think they caved on that in the 80's. Mimi Sheraton's editor (Abe Rosenstein?) used to cover up her numerical rating, read the review, decide how many stars he'd give the place based on her writing and then compare the two. I'd have no problem dropping numerical scores because I'd rather read multiple reviews, go eat at the restaurant and judge for myself.

Now that I've put everyone to sleep, I guess I could see getting worked up over this if it impacted my ability to get loans to open and operate a restaurant, but I'm not sure that happens in Minnesota. (It certainly does in NYC - again, Mimi Sheraton documents places that were able to get loans based on even 2-star reviews in the NYTimes.) If that's wrong, I'd be interested in hearing similar local tales.

Finally, let's face it, not every reviewer is a 4-star one, eh? Some reviewers write better, are more observant and have deeper experience in the food and hospitality industry than others, which is why I think Dara's the best reviewer in the Twin Cities. Jason, the bone I have to pick with you is that restauranteurs RECOGNIZE you, and thus your experience of a place is a helluva lot different than mine. No one's fawning all over me for a good review - I'm the person sitting at the next table trying to get a drink. Cheers!

Nov 18, 2010 04:44 pm
 Posted by  Mike M.

You left out Stewart's latest post. http://shefzilla.com/?p=10098

What an ass.

Nov 18, 2010 05:18 pm
 Posted by  Jason DeRusha

Mike, I wrote this before that. A very curious approach, to say the least.

Sara, I do often get recognized in city restaurants. But based on the service I receive at the places I'm writing about in the suburbs, I can assure you that I'm not being recognized. Actually, once in my year of writing for MNMO I was recognized - at a place I was writing a blurb about.

Most restaurant employees are working at the time I'm on the news, so I don't think I get any special treatment. If I do - I'll disclose it in the blog, so people can judge for themselves. I suspect restaurant people recognize the main critics in town far more than the dude on the news.

Nov 18, 2010 05:59 pm
 Posted by  Jason DeRusha

And I totally agree with you on the quality of the reviewer. Dara is outstanding: her mind is encyclopedic about restaurants and the food history here over the past 15 years, and I'd rather READ her review than see her put a star or a number on a place.

Nov 18, 2010 09:34 pm
 Posted by  Sara M.

Jason, I will give you this: My big beef was always with Zimmern. I could never figure out how he conducts honest reviews in the TC. I'd recognize him even if he were in a dress and high heels!

Let's face it on numerical ratings, though: They sell. People like quick sound-bites and easily-digestible information, so there you go. I'm not immune to that either; it's just that reading about food is pleasurable to me, so time spent doing that is enjoyable. And criticism is by its very nature subjective, but that sells, too!

Well, I've wrestled that subject to death - off to blather on FB and Twitter!

Nov 18, 2010 09:51 pm
 Posted by  z.

Ironically, the one time I've been to the new Heartland our service and food noticeably took a turn for the worst when Jason came in.

Anyway... it makes sense that the venue the review is intended for should pretty much dictate the critic's approach.

If you're reviewing Heartland or a new local BBQ place for the Strib it's not the same demographic as doing it for Minnesota Monthly or City Pages. And a four star burger joint is not the same as a four star sushi place.

And hopefully that's what the letters or stars or whatever mean... to that person on that day (given that there is a decent chance in many cases the restaurant knows it's dealing with a critic).

That's context I place ratings in anyway.

Nov 19, 2010 12:07 am
 Posted by  pH

Wow, this sure is causing a lot of publicity for the new Heidi's, isn't it?

........(hint, hint)

Nov 20, 2010 02:33 am
 Posted by  Mplspig30

or the same as 5... ooopps I mean Heidi's

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TC Taste answers your restaurant and dining questions, dishes on latest discoveries, reflects on breaking news, and generally bring the plate to the page with a skilled crew of experts: Minnesota Monthly editor-in-chief Rachel Hutton, Sustainable Food Correspondent Marie Flanagan, Chef Jason Ross, Food Writer Joy Summers, and Drinks & Real Food Senior Editor Mary Subialka. Learn more about the TC Taste bloggers.

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