Why a Taco Joint or Cafe Can Rate Higher Than a White-Tablecloth Restaurant
Burrata, persimmon, walnut, rosemary, arugula at Sqirl.
This week I review Sqirl, the breakfast and lunch spot on the Silver Lake/East Hollywood border, which has gained a somewhat rabid following since its opening in late 2012. If you read the review, you might get the (correct) impression that I am among those rabid fans, so much so that I gave the restaurant a four-star rating. In the process of writing, and thinking about those stars, I had to question a lot of the preconceptions out there about what makes a restaurant great, about what that means in terms of a star rating, and specifically what that means in Los Angeles.
There are generally two schools when it comes to giving out star ratings. One is very tied to the Michelin model, and it has been the classic way restaurants have been rated by newspapers over the last 50 years: Stars were given on a scale that related to fanciness and luxury. A great but shabby neighborhood spot might earn one or two stars -- the three-, four- and five-star ratings were saved exclusively for upscale restaurants, and the highest ratings given only to places that had perfected the art of lofty fine dining.
The other school of thought has been described like this: How well is this restaurant doing what it has set out to achieve? This is a nice thought, but perhaps a little simplistic. McDonald's, for instance, is doing just about exactly what it's trying to do. That shouldn't earn it a five-star rating.
So what should the criteria be? And is it possible to apply the same criteria to different cities the world over?
For me, the answer has become more and more tied to a city's identity, meaning that it can't be really applied the same everywhere -- which is why I think Michelin had a hard time with L.A. and eventually left. Because many of our most exciting and best restaurants don't really fit into its strict model of rating things. How do you rate a taco joint like Guisados or Ricky's? A truck like Kogi? Or the vast and delicious food of Koreatown and the San Gabriel Valley?
So now, when I'm looking at a restaurant and thinking about star ratings, I'm thinking: How much of a difference does this place make to its neighborhood? Could this place actually change the eating life of a diner? Could it show them something new? How much value is there, both in the economic sense and the grander philosophical sense, in this food?
When looking at a place like Sqirl, I was struck over and over again by how much better the food there was than food I was eating at fancy restaurants around town. Every time I sat down to eat there, something stunned me. Not only that but it's vastly cheaper than other food of or near its quality available elsewhere. I look at owner Jessica Koslow and the kitchen crew she has at Sqirl and I see the future of L.A.'s food scene. What they're putting out is excellent. And that's what the four-star rating means: excellent.
We also, of course, have a fifth star in our rating system, and for that, I do think a restaurant would have to get every damn thing perfectly right. The service, the comfort, the drink program, the food. And not only right but exciting, and maybe even a little life-changing. The designation for the fifth star is "world-class": Someone should want to fly here from New York to try the place.
In regards to Sqirl, withholding the fourth star for issues of comfort and convenience crossed my mind, certainly. But in the end, those things don't matter nearly as much as the intent and impact of the food itself.
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