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Cursing the stars

Chefs crave them. Critics hate them. Yelpers render them useless. So what are we to do with restaurant ratings? Dining critic Josh Sens rails against a system he wishes would go away-and tells us how to find meaning in it anyway. 

Greetings, dear reader, and welcome to another issue of the Prairie Home Companion of city magazines, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the restaurants are above average. See for yourself in our dining listings—a catalog of pizzerias, taquerias, and bistros; of sushi bars, burger joints, and brasseries. From A16 to Zuni Café, we cover scores of restaurants around the region, and if our restaurant ratings are to be believed, only a rare few in the past decade have deserved a single star. As the man mainly responsible for assigning these grades, I wish I could say this makes me proud. Instead, reviewing my reviews leaves me uneasy, which means one thing: I’ve got a bit of explaining to do. 

     I’ll start with the quick cop-out, the pat disclaimer: I don’t care for restaurant stars. I regard them as crude instruments ill suited to the function we assign them, blunt tools that dull the nuance of opinion, battering subjective musings into hardened “facts.” As a dining public, we turn to stars as shortcuts, but they do us all a disservice, misleading readers and, often, mistreating chefs. Pretending that they represent an equitable standard, we sprinkle them on restaurants that offer $170 tasting menus and ones that sell $2 tacos, as if one star system alone could ever guide us faithfully through a dining universe so vast and varied.

     Add to these flaws the fact that stars can carry a force strong enough to spin a restaurant off its axis, and you’ve got a clear imbalance in our foodreviewing culture, in which the glare of symbols outshines the subtleties of the written word. That bugs me. 

     I felt this about stars long before I became a restaurant critic, having spent part of my childhood gazing up at their distorted glow. When I was growing up, my cousin David Waltuck was the chef and co-owner of a New York restaurant, Chanterelle, that was notable enough to draw more than one review from the New York Times. All these years later, I can’t tell you what the writeups said, but I still recall the bylines and the star that hung beneath them: four from Bryan Miller; two on his revisit; then four from Ruth Reichl; then three from William Grimes. Clearly restaurants have their ups and downs. But so do critics. Their tastes shift along with their moods. The fiction propagated by a fixed star system is that when a rating drops, only the restaurant deserves the blame. Either way, the impact of the stars is
real. When Chanterelle lost theirs, the phone stopped ringing at the same frenetic pace. 

     The Times and its rating system were on my mind nine years ago when I was hired to do the job I do today. In a meeting with my bosses to discuss the ground rules, I voiced my thoughts on stars. 

     “I don’t like them, either,” my editor confessed. 

     “Great,” I replied. “Can we get rid of them?” 

     She shook her head. Michelin has been using stars to sell tires since 1926, and the practice has since become standard for restaurant critics. And now that Yelp and other user-review sites have turned the power of the stars over to anyone within range of a keyboard, stars will be with us until the Milky Way burns itself out. My task, my editor told me, was to arrange them in coherent patterns, to make sure that they aligned with my opinions. I had only a faint inkling then of how tricky that would be. 

     One indication came a few months in, when I wrote a tepid review of Campton Place, back when Daniel Humm was in the kitchen. After crossing the last t, I did the math our system called for to calculate the stars. I assigned a number rating to each of five categories: food quality, variety, service, ambience, and value. Given that I’d found the waitstaff stiff, the setting stuffy, and the food overwrought, albeit varied, basic math suggested that the prospects weren’t good. Throw in the fact that the prices were as high as any in the city, and it all added up to a “below average” rating, which, in our calibrations, is not a star but the faint outline of one. (Don’t bother looking for this icon in our pages; it’s the Comet Kohoutek of our celestial symbols, showing up roughly once every 50,000 years.) 

     That’s what the numbers said, anyway. But was Campton Place really below average? Or merely something less than it set out to be? This question gave me pause, and all the more when I flipped through our listings and saw two-star noodle shops and barbecue shacks. Sure, they served good grub, but the intentions of their cooking hardly matched the grand ambitions of Campton Place. So whatever my motive—not wanting to seem harsh, lingering self-doubt, the absence of any more-fruitful ideas—I bumped the restaurant’s rating to two stars. 

     In the weeks that followed, I received mountains of feedback. Not from the chef, but from loyal patrons of the restaurant, who questioned my ethics, my IQ, my taste. The irony: If anyone took issue with anything I’d written, they didn’t say so. According to their missives, they were outraged at the stars, which, according to our key, meant the restaurant was “very good” and thus were far more generous than anything I’d said. (I should note that Humm has since gone on to work at Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, where the New York Times has awarded him four stars for his work. Maybe those readers were right after all.) 

     Looking back, I realize that Campton Place marked the start of a shift in my unconscious practice that put me on the path toward star inflation. Instead of standing by the below-average rating and its original meaning, I shied away from it, bowing to the perception that it was Anton Ego–cruel. In retrospect, it isn’t hard to see the bind this put me in. Whereas four-star restaurants are as rare as unicorns (perfection, after all, is elusive), one-star, or “good,” restaurants are as common as ground squirrels in a city with such a vibrant dining culture. By making one-star ratings a last resort, I limited myself to a narrow middle ground. The result, all these years later: a gathering of stars so tightly clustered in the center, you need access to the Hale telescope at Palomar Mountain to tell them apart. 

     As time went by and this nagging problem made itself increasingly apparent, I tried to resolve it through food writer sleight of hand: the half-star increment, the restaurant critic’s version of Spinal Tap’s “go to 11” amp. Two and a half stars became a kind of catchall fallback, one I applied to everything from the Comstock Saloon, a boozy North Beach hitching post where I liked the bar food, to Fifth Floor, a luxe hotel restaurant toward which I felt lukewarm. What I’d hoped was that half stars would help me convey nuance, shades of culinary gray. But their ultimate effect was, at least in my mind, to underscore the arbitrariness of symbols. 

     A reminder of this came last year when I reviewed Quince, after its relocation to Jackson Square. I thought it was a good restaurant, a very good restaurant, beautiful to look at, brimming with ambition, and I composed what I regarded as a fairly fawning write-up: more Paula Abdul than Simon Cowell. Then I gave it a grade of two and a half stars, the midpoint between “very good” and “excellent.” Once again, my inbox was flooded with indignant feedback, the bulk of it focused on my final rating. Even those respondents who parsed the review itself left me with the impression that it wasn’t the words but the stars that really rankled. I can’t prove this, but I feel it strongly, especially since I dug a copy of the review out of my files: Rereading it now, I think it comes across as something close to hagiography. 

     But that’s the thing with stars. Taken out of context, as they so frequently are, they defy interpretation, yet manage so easily to flatter or offend. And, as with real stars in the sky, people often notice them long after they’re gone. 

     So vexed have I become with this small part of my job, I’ve turned more than once to outside help. One memorable suggestion came from Clark Wolf, the veteran restaurant consultant, who recommended that I use my time productively by building a bridge and getting over myself. 

     “I hate to break it to you, but people aren’t paying that kind of attention to what you write,” Wolf told me. “You think they have the time for that? You think you’re going to get some kind of literary prize for this? Give the restaurant the number of stars you think it deserves and get on with it. And if you can’t handle doing that, find another job.” 

     Wolf belongs to an Age of Reason school that regards restaurant criticism in a cold, pragmatic light: Reviews aren’t entertainment, they’re consumer reporting. This view is not uncommon, though it places Wolf at odds with other leading figures in the food-wonk world, among them Ruth Reichl, the former New York Times restaurant critic, who told me that she has never cared for stars and sees them as “an insult to the reader,” their implicit message being that the average Joe at home can’t scan the paper, analyze, interpret, and make up his own mind. Note her use of the word reader. Reichl, a writer, has always wanted to be read. 

     As have I. But I understand that restaurant criticism fulfills different purposes for different people, which, to my mind, only furthers the argument that stars and written reviews should be kept apart. 

     There are healthy precedents for this practice. Way back when, there was Gael Greene of New York, penning useful (if starless) reviews jammed with lovely phrases and so much sensual detail that you half expected them to close with coitus. And nowadays there’s Jonathan Gold of the LA Weekly, who is widely regarded as the finest restaurant critic in the country and is the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for food writing. Gold writes “reviews” that aren’t so much critiques as they are culinary anthropology. They’re engaging and insightful, and they give you a sense of whether you might want to try the restaurant. And when you get to the end, aha! No stars. 

     Meanwhile, if you want stars, they are everywhere—in newspapers, in magazines, and on sites like Yelp, a vast solar system where innumerable burning bodies reflect endlessly on one another, frequently with dizzying effect. I’m not quite sure what to make of Yelp, but it’s got stars in abundance. And the writing? You can give it the old Clark Wolf, or ignore it altogether, unless you’re out for tips on misplacing modifiers and overusing exclamation points. 

     I poke fun, but the truth is that Yelp provides me with some comfort. Better to have thousands of stars swirling overhead than only a bright few that exert excessive pull. 

     In our ever more democratized reviewing culture, Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead restaurant critic, is the closest thing we have to a local kingmaker. The plebes on Yelp can protest all they want, but when Bauer pans a restaurant, heads often roll. 

     Yet the Chron’s man himself is no great fan of stars. He told me that he’d rather not assign them. Given that he must, he relies on them, he told me, “to keep myself honest,” checking and doublechecking them against his copy to make sure he’s on message. After several recent meals at Ragazza, for example, Bauer came away leaning toward giving the restaurant a two-and-a-half-star rating. But then he wrote his piece and decided that the rating didn’t ring quite right. The review sounded more glowing. Ragazza got upgraded to three stars. 

     Maybe someday stars will make me honest. What they do now is make me crazy. All that rigmarole I used to go through to calculate stars, crunching numbers for service, food, and so on? I’ve abandoned it as fruitless, a fool’s errand, really. No number of equations will ever convince me that this is math. It boils down to an experience, so that’s what I go with: Did it feel like a two-star restaurant? A three-star restaurant? Imperfect as I am, I often second-guess myself, as I did with Waterbar (I gave it one and a half stars; two stars would have been more fair) and Lafitte (I gave it two stars; one would have been enough). But by then, it’s usually too late.

     Complicating matters further, I go about all this amid a cloudy climate I helped create. What I’d like to do is turn back the clock and start from scratch, erase every star I’ve scribbled in the past nine years, and reassign them, without inflation: One star means “good,” four stars mean “superb,” with “very good” and “excellent” in between. But what I’d like even more is to erase the stars—and leave it at that. 

     I’ve considered all the arguments against this: publishers like stars; readers demand them; where on earth would this world be without standards? The only one I’ve found the slightest bit persuasive came from Christopher Kostow, chef at the Michelin three-starred Restaurant at Meadowood. The value of stars, he said, is that they cultivate an atmosphere of healthy competition, inspiring dedicated chefs to keep improving, which results in better products on the plate. 

     “The guest wins,” Kostow said. “Look at cities where there is an absence of viable food criticism and ratings systems, and you will inevitably see a place devoid of great, progressive food.” 

     But does viable restaurant criticism really depend on ratings? It depends on careful writing. And careful reading. Here’s a proposal: I’ll do my best on my end, and you do your best on yours. Since the dawn of human history, people have scoured the stars in search of meaning. But we don’t need to look to them to find meaning in our restaurant reviews. 

THE FOUR-STAR EXPERIENCE

It’s a very rare occurrence when four stars align over a restaurant. It requires a confluence of flawless cooking in a sublime setting with service as honed and graceful as the Moscow Ballet. This month, for the third time in my nine years as a restaurant critic, I’m giving a quartet, to Manresa (see page 110). The first time I awarded four stars, it was to the French Laundry, in 2004, and in 2005, I gave the constellation to Cyrus. Among my many vivid memories from David Kinch’s prix fixe and chef’s tasting menus is a broccoli custard adorned with lemon emulsion and vadouvanseasoned sunflower seeds: a dish composed of familiar elements that tasted unlike anything I’d had before. It was delivered by a server who moved with his colleagues as if on a carousel, posture and pacing mirrored in a room that wore its elegance with ease. I searched hard for infelicities but found none. And I dug deep in my pocket to pay the bill, which is to be expected at a four-star restaurant. Perfection, after all, has its price.

THE THREE-AND-A-HALF-STAR EXPERIENCE

Evidence abounds that Corey Lee can really cook. His poularde cooked en vessie, a classic preparation of a young hen slow-cooked inside a pig’s bladder that must be
ordered three days in advance, turns out to be worth the wait. If the food were all that mattered, this would be a fourstar restaurant. But Benu misses that rating because of the stiffness of its setting, which has the hushed, worshipful air of a place that people come to because they feel they should. Hits from the Eagles, piped through a sound system with other dated rock, herald an effort to liven things up, but the songs only call attention to the otherwise funereal feel of the room. A noticeable drawback, to say the least, and I imagine some diners might subtract more for it. But given the wizardry in the kitchen, and the impeccability of the service, a half-star deduction strikes me as enough.

THE THREE-STAR EXPERIENCE

Stars make zero sense if you don’t consider context. They are meant to take the measure of a restaurant’s ambitions and to signal whether the experience lives up to them. Included on the three-star list are an oldschool gin joint, a Roman enoteca, a Japanese izakaya, and an iconic stronghold of Cal-Med cuisine. All are too casual in their service and their setting to be four-star restaurants. But if I had a hankering for a steak and a martini, fiery bucatini all’Amatriciana, grilled chicken hearts, or the perfect cauliflower salad with a hard-boiled egg, I’d light out correspondingly to Bix, Locanda, Ippuku, and Chez Panisse Café. All are excellent examples of their ilk and worthy of a detour if their food is what you’re craving.

THE TWO-AND-A-HALF-STAR EXPERIENCE

Odds are your head is spinning from the dizzying diversity of this category, which lumps Michael Mina’s chummy upscale restaurant under the same heading as a counter-service Italian bakery and a scrappy Chinese joint on Mission Street. Frankly, mine is, too. The best defense I have for my decisions is that some two-point-five-star restaurants are Cinderella stories, rising above their humble standing, while others are more like predictable princes, behaving in the practiced manner you’d expect. One bite of the Xi’an lamb cheek, intensely spicy, tender pieces of braised lamb served with preserved turnip greens in a tangle of ramen noodles, at Mission Chinese Food, and you know that this is no ordinary Chinese restaurant, just as a nibble of olive-stuffed fazzoletto clues you in that PIQ is doing special things with dough. Not that you’d go to either for the atmosphere. As for Michael Mina, it hums happily along, displaying all of the chef’s flashy hallmarks—the brawny portions (witness the honking pork rib); the razzmatazz of tableside presentations (behold the wagyu shabu-shabu). Two and a half stars places Mina’s outpost midway between “very good” and “excellent.” To me, that seems about right for what is, in the end, the highly competent expression of a corporate brand.

THE TWO-STAR EXPERIENCE

A two-star rating, which means “very good,” is a handy demarcation for neighborhood restaurants I’d be happy to go to if I lived nearby. That’s how I feel about the Beast and the Hare, with its homey, hearty, fried-chicken aesthetic, and the tongue-tingling satisfactions of Flavors of India, where I lunch fairly often on tandoori chicken, since the place is walking distance from my home. Two stars are my shorthand for “excellent choice, provided it’s convenient.” Or, in the case of Morimoto, a spendy destination, my way of saying “good for tourists, business travelers, and anyone eager to cull alpha predators from our oceans.” Otherwise: “Put that money toward your rent, or save it for a two-star place in your own ‘hood.’ ”

THE ONE-AND-A-HALF-STAR EXPERIENCE

In a world without star inflation, I would give no stars to Twenty Five Lusk. This restaurant is a mess. The food is overwrought (a vanilla-scented sole still clings cloyingly to my memory’s palate), and the service is ham-fisted, rendered by waiters who go to awkward lengths to tell you how delicious everything is. Pretty as the space is, in its two-story steel-and-concrete getup, its split personality is apparent; the thumping music suggests it would rather be a nightclub. This is the lowest
grade I’ve given, and it’s code for “I wouldn’t go here even if someone else were paying and the entrance stood just across the street.”

 

Josh Sens is San Francisco’s restaurant critic.