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Seeing Stars: A Five-Star Rating System for L.A. Restaurants 

The L.A. Weekly will assign star ratings to restaurant reviews in 2013

Thursday, Dec 20 2012
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In April, while I was in Los Angeles for a whirlwind 32-hour tour of the city and to interview for the position of the Weekly's restaurant critic, the paper's food editor, Amy Scattergood, spent an entire day driving me around to restaurants, trying to give me a sense of the L.A. dining scene. We ate at Pizzeria Mozza. We ate at Chung King. We started out the day at the Santa Monica Farmers market and ate our way east, ending in the San Gabriel Valley.

At one restaurant, we ran into one of the city's best-known chefs. He had no idea who I was, of course, or why I was there. But he and Amy got to talking about the subject of star ratings. The L.A. Times had just abandoned its long-standing star system, and the chef bemoaned the loss.

"I know there are things about star ratings that are stupid," he said. "But they're also really helpful. And they give us something to aspire to. When you open a restaurant, you have the rating in mind that you're aiming for. It's a benchmark, for chefs and consumers. Especially after Michelin pulled out of L.A. I just think it's depressing that there's no system in place, no weekly starred review in a city this important."

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Beginning Jan. 1, L.A. Weekly's restaurant reviews will come with a star rating. This is something we've thought about ever since that April day — and not just because of what that chef said, although it did start the conversation.

As a critic, I'd always worked with a star system, until I came to L.A. Frankly, it's been a relief to write reviews without assigning stars: The star rating added a layer of deliberation and anxiety I was happy to forgo. If we were making decisions purely based on my whims as a writer, we'd continue to go without. But star ratings can provide huge value, especially if done right.

The same guide that invented star ratings played a part in our decision to try them in Los Angeles. Brothers André and Édouard Michelin originally authored a booklet to help motorists to find gas stations and mechanics in the European countryside. And it was the Michelin guide that first debuted a dining star in 1926: A restaurant with a star was one worth seeking out. Between 1931 and 1936, the brothers added a second and third star and settled on a rating system to better delineate quality.

Michelin went global, and long before the guide entered the L.A. market in 2007, everyone was handing out stars — beginning, in the United States, with Craig Claiborne, who ushered in the era of the starred restaurant review with a three-star scale at The New York Times in 1963. (A fourth star was added a year later.)

But after just two years of awarding stars here, Michelin pulled out of the Los Angeles market in 2009. Three years later, the L.A. Times eliminated star ratings from its restaurant reviews. The paper's food editor wrote, "Star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California" and that stars "have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score."

The Weekly has traditionally eschewed a star system. But in light of the starless vacuum that exists in L.A. today, we believe one could only add value for our readers. And the truth is, readers like a rating system.

It's one thing to be high-minded and talk about the ineffable qualities of a meal, but in the age of Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes, when everything is rated or "liked" or favorited, why shouldn't professional critics be part of the discussion? Bowing out of that game for the last seven months has been nice, believe me, but it feels like stepping away from the modern mode of conversation rather than engaging in every way we can.

So allow me to break down the mechanics.

We'll be operating on a five-star scale. Yes, a four-star system is what L.A. is used to, but I like the five-star system because it reserves that fifth star for restaurants that are truly world-class. Four-star restaurants can be some of the best restaurants in the city; five-star restaurants should be some of the best in the world. Are there any five-star restaurants in L.A.? I don't know, but I want there to be an acknowledgment that excellence of that sort is possible.

Also, the scale we ask our readers to use online in our listings pages is five stars, and if it's good enough for our readers, well ....

Our ratings will be as follows:

Zero stars: Poor

One star: Fair. This can be a place that's worthy of discussion but just OK, or an ambitious restaurant falling well short of its goals.

Two stars: Good. This might be a neighborhood spot worthy of recognition, or a place worth checking out if you're looking for a particular cuisine. Conversely, it might be an ambitious restaurant that's not quite hitting its mark but not failing either.

Three stars: Very good — worth the drive, even if you're not in the neighborhood.

Four stars: Excellent.

Five stars: World-class. You should fly here from New York for this food.

There will be no half stars.

You'll notice that drive time is taken into consideration with the ratings. The fanciness of the place, for the most part, is not. As a restaurant critic in Atlanta, I gave four stars to a life-changing pizza place, and four stars to a Szechuan joint in a strip mall with cracked pink vinyl booths and the best food I'd eaten in months. If the occasion arises, I'll do the same here.

Of course, if the space is lovely and the service is wonderful, that may factor into the equation, but only if that's part of the restaurant's mission.

The real question is this: What is this restaurant trying to achieve? How close is it to that goal? And how enjoyable is the outcome?

The most common ratings, though, will be two and three stars. People often are frustrated by this (believe me, people have many frustrations with star ratings). But the simple fact is that the huge majority of restaurants we consider will either be doing a very good job, earning them three stars, or they'll be falling a little short of that and earning two.

Getting two of five stars isn't like getting a D in school. There are many ratings systems in the world, and they aren't comparable. After all, getting a bronze medal at the Olympics doesn't make you a loser — two stars out of five, when it comes to restaurants, can be a quite positive review.

Yes, comparing restaurants can be like comparing apples and oranges. But, if we're to use that cliché, let's consider how helpful it would be to try to decide between that apple and that orange. Is one in season? Is one cared for better than the other? Which is most delicious? It's an imperfect science, and yet we hope it will help diners decide where to spend their money.

As always, if the star rating system frustrates you, we'd like to hear from you. But we also hope that you'll recognize this is simply an added value. The writing and reading of the review itself will always be what matters most to us and, we hope, to you as well.

Reach the writer at brodell@laweekly.com

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