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Critics Weigh in on the Importance of Starred Reviews

The Los Angeles Times quit using stars in their restaurant reviews last week and now everyone has something to say about it. And despite LAT dining editor Russ Parsons' insistence that "the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score," most of the critics who have responded to the decision are all for the star system. Below, critics from Washington, DC to San Francisco weigh in on the decision.

Tom Sietsema, Washington Post
Sietsema instituted the star system at the Washington Post in 2003, so naturally he's pro-star: "Stars make a critic more honest. There’s less wiggle room, less hedging, when a reviewer employs stars. The words have to support the rant or the rave."

Scott Reitz, Dallas Observer
Reitz splits restaurant review readers into two groups: those who read them "for their literary merit" and those who "just wants to know if they should eat at the damn place." It seems the latter group will now have to "put a little more thought into their decision."

Leslie Brenner, Dallas Morning News
Brenner comes down on both sides of the issues but ultimately seems to be pro-star: "Certainly having to assign a star rating makes my job more difficult. But it forces me to focus my critical thinking in a way that I think is very useful to readers -- which to me is hugely important. Of course a star rating cannot replace a nuanced critique, but I feel it works well in tandem with the review."

Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle
Bauer takes the angle that getting rid of stars is a ploy to get readers to actually read the text of the review, and he's not sure he agrees: "Yes, [stars] may shortcut the review, and many people will start by looking at the rating, but I also think they go back and read the review. Giving a summary of the review, as the Times intends to do, doesn't seem to make it even more likely the people won't read the reviews. However, forgoing ratings lets the critic off the hook."


None of these address the fact that the field of professional restaurant criticism is in flux. Social media has disrupted the restaurant recommendation hierarchy, and more often people are turning to Yelp or apps to figure out where to eat. Yelp has starred reviews; now, the Los Angeles Times does not. Was the move an effort to distance professional reviews from the chattering online masses?

If there is a chance in hell for the restaurant reviewing profession, it lies in playing up the expertise of the critics. That means outlets need excellent writing (hello, LAT hiring Pulitzer prize winning critic Jonathan Gold). But will the LA Time's decision to drop stars make people actually read the reviews? And, as Reitz says, force people to put more thought into where they look for restaurant recommendations?

Bauer suggests that people were reading the reviews anyway. Are critics now just "off the hook" from having to make a judgement call via the metric that is a starred review?

· The LA Times Dumps Starred Restaurant Reviews [-E-]
· All Critic Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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