There's a question I've been asked now by friends, co-workers, readers and even my editors: Are you ever going to give a five-star review?
It's a fair enough question. It's been just over a year since we started awarding star ratings on our restaurant reviews, and although we use a five-star scale, there have been no five-star reviews. This isn't a big change for me: In my last job, as a critic in Atlanta where I was also on a five-star system, I gave only one five-star review in six years.
So why even bother having five stars if we're never going to use them?
The answer: While we have a ton of restaurants here that we should be immensely proud of, Los Angeles should be held to a global standard, the same as New York or London or Paris. We deserve restaurants that travelers might plan a trip around, that might end up on someone's international bucket list of dining. While I've reviewed some incredibly impressive restaurants in the last year, none of them quite met that standard. Some came very close, and one in particular might turn into a five-star restaurant one day. But not yet. And that's OK.
In the past year, I've heard the argument that if we never use the fifth star, it loses all meaning. I tend to believe the opposite – that if we give out stars too liberally, they lose meaning. The New York Times currently has only six four-star restaurants in the entire city, and that's over years and years of reviews, and quite a few critics. It's part of what makes stars in the Times so meaningful – they are not given easily. When that five-star restaurant comes around, you'll know how special it is.
Think of the life-changing meals you've had, the ones you'll never forget, the ones that were perfect in every way from food to wine to service, or so unique they moved you in a way you never expected a meal could. How often in your life do you expect to have such a meal? I can count on one hand the meals I've had like that, and I eat out for a living. When something like that does come along in Los Angeles, shouldn't there be a way to distinguish it? A way to separate it from the merely wonderful?
The truth of the matter is that, until that world-class restaurant opens, I'm basically operating on a four-star scale. There is a range within each star rating, but as with a four-star scale, a three-star rating should be seen in many instances as a rave, and a four-star rating should be seen as an indication that this is one of the very best places in town. Two stars should be seen as an endorsement, and one star, while probably never positive, should not be seen as a wholly negative review – the rating means “fair,” which means the restaurant is OK. Not good but not bad.
So, the short answer to the question is that I probably will give a five-star review one day. But not simply because we have the option – when the fifth star happens, it will be to honor something truly astounding.
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