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It’s Fair to Compare

June 5, 2009

About eight months ago my local paper, the Albany Times Union, published what could be described as their policy for restaurant reviews.

It was tacked onto the end of an unfavorable review of a joint where I believe you can get some of the best food in the city.  I am not going to parse that review today.  Instead, I’d prefer to talk about the policy.  Here it is:

“Beginning this week Life Today will contain a wider range of restaurant reviews. Critiques of fine dining establishments, published under the title ‘Matters of Taste,’ will run every other week. On alternate weeks reviews of less expensive restaurants will run under the heading ‘Order Up.’ Because it is unfair to invite comparison between restaurants serving $8 entrees and those asking three times as much, star ratings will not given on ‘Order Up’ reviews.”

You may be scratching your head, and wondering “what on Earth could be wrong with this?”  And I admit, it is great that the paper isn’t focusing all of its attention on the most expensive restaurants in the area.

It is the last sentence of their policy that I take issue with.  Here is why.

I have found the restaurants, especially those at the higher end, are not as good as they should be.  Plus they seem to charge an extraordinary amount of money for the quality of their food.  I continue to try and figure out why that is the case.  I suspect portion sizes are partly to blame.  But there is more to it than that.

On the other hand there are some gems on the lower end.  Authentic diners, area institutions, pizza parlors and taverns like Dewey’s, Bob & Ron’s Fish Fry, De Fazio’s and the Ale House respectively, pump out food whose quality and taste exceed those of many “fine dining” establishments.

So to whom are they trying to be fair?  I see how it may be unfair for pricier restaurants to have to face they have inferior food to some of the dives.

But wouldn’t that be a good thing?  Wouldn’t that encourage some of the higher end restaurants to improve the quality of their food?  Wouldn’t they differentiate themselves by sourcing more local ingredients and creating seasonal menus?  Wouldn’t they get more creative instead of just serving plates with a protein, a starch and a vegetable?

On the other hand, I just cannot see how receiving starred ratings would be unfair for the more casual restaurants.  But if you have any thoughts, I welcome the dialogue.

So all of a sudden we need to be fair to the higher end restaurants?  Whatever is fair to one party will often seem unfair to the other.  By not providing high-quality lower-priced restaurants with stars, the paper is reinforcing the notion that these restaurants couldn’t possibly be as good as their fine dining counterparts.  Additionally, readers are not provided a very useful shorthand for determining what is good to eat in the area.

Plus if you check online, it’s interesting to see which restaurants have been selected to receive a starred review.  The Melting Pot, P.F. Chang’s, Buca di Beppo, The Cheesecake Factory, and even Olive Garden all have stars.  And all of them earned at least a 2 ½ rating on the Times Union’s 4 star scale.  Granted, these reviews were written before the policy notice.  But still.

Pegging their policy on price really bothers me.  Great food does not have to cost a lot of money.  And just because it costs a lot of money doesn’t make it great food.

I am still scratching my head after reading this review for a steakhouse.  The beefsteak tomato and mozzarella stack was described as being “virtually tasteless.”  And one of the three steaks ordered was gristly and the reviewer called it a “klunker”.  It was most likely a $50 steak.  And it was bad.  To recap, that is one bad steak out of three.  That’s not good odds.  The place only got marked down ½ star for its performance.

Ultimately, I have trust in people.  I trust in their ability to distinguish between the 3-star review of the diner and the 2-star review of the high-end eatery.  I trust they will not just look at the stars, but read the review as well, so they can gauge their own tastes against the reviewers’ as I have done above.

But I am not so sure I trust the taste and judgment of the editors at the Times Union.  Maybe that’s part of the problem.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2009 9:57 pm

    I heartily agree. I also have a dream that one day we will be blessed by some inspired local restauranteur with a joint that realizes that we live within a gunshot of some of the best farmland in the country. I have seen some healthy beefs roaming our southern tier in my travels, perhaps a steakhouse that promises a steak fed on our beloved New York grass would not be out of place. I was in Oklahoma once and ate at a restaurant where you could see the herd your burger came from out the front window. There was a certain satisfaction in this fact.

  2. Tonia permalink
    June 12, 2009 1:31 pm

    Let me just ask this, WHAT is the obsession with PF Changs?? I don’t get it.

    I miss the Dumpling House and Kenny. Hot and sour soup has never been the same for me again.

    Bob and Ron’s – CLASSIC – I’ve been going there since I was a kid.

  3. Matt permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:07 pm

    I would think the problem is that the restaurants aren’t comparable enough on enough axes. A star rating has to take into account quality, cost, atmosphere, etc. The unfairness comes from the fact that cheap restaurants don’t offer the same “quality dining” experience. That’s not a problem if you rate each axis separately, but if you have to lump them all together, then the cheap diner starts off at a significant disadvantage, even taking food quality into account, because it can never equal the others on the non-food-quality elements.

  4. June 25, 2009 8:59 am

    I’ll echo Matt’s comments about why it would be unfair to casual places to be judged on the same four-star scale used for more expensive restaurants. Our rationale, as at The New York Times and other publications that do both fine-dining and cheap-eats reviews, is that casual eateries can’t compete in terms of ambiance and service, two of the three areas that receive star ratings in our reviews of full-service restaurants. Food gets the most weight, but ambiance and service are important parts of what many people want from a dining experience that is meant to be more than just a quick bite.

    For instance, local aficionados of the first meal of the day often say breakfast at Duncan’s Dairy Bar in Troy is a perfect experience, a four-star meal. That’s what seven out of 12 reader reviews in the Times Union’s restaurant database give it:

    http://www.timesunion.com/entertainment/restaurants/onereview.asp?RestaurantID=1554&Page=1

    As our reviewer noted, however, on his visit the place had bare fluorescent lights on the ceiling, a bug zapper on one wall, service took forever and newly arriving customers were seated at tables and counter spots with previous diners’ dirty dishes still sitting there. People who “get” Duncan’s don’t mind, but even they’d have to agree that such elements preclude Duncan’s from ever getting four stars — unless all you’re rating it on is the food. Daniel B., you never once mention service or atmosphere in your post above; as I read it, your final conclusion about a restaurant is based on how good you find the food. That’s fine — it’s what matters to you, and you’re articulate about your standards and expectations — but such a frame of reference doesn’t acknowledge either that a) most diners also care about service and atmosphere when they go out for a nice meal; and b) better restaurants spend significant effort and expense to make service and atmosphere part of the experience of a meal there, and so it’s also part of what they’re asking to be judged on. Not evaluating them would be like Car & Driver magazine road-testing a new BMW and talking only about the performance and handling, not whether the seats are supremely comfortable, the stereo is fantastic and all the other amenities add to the driving experience, as they’d better when you’re paying that much for them.

    Finally, a little context: This post is built on a false premise. You write, “it is great that the paper isn’t focusing all of its attention on the most expensive restaurants in the area,” which suggests you think the Times Union just started doing cheap-eats reviews. That’s not true. We’ve been doing them consistently for at least a decade, and they appeared in various forms, on and off, for years before that. The difference is that from the late 1990s until last year, cheap-eats reviews appeared in our Thursday Preview magazine, and they were written by for most of that period by a rotating roster of staffers and did not receive stars, for the reasons outlined above as well as because, given the variety of critics, the scale would not have been consistent. The full, formal, starred reviews of more expensive restaurants appeared in the Sunday Life section and were always written by the same person, Bill Dowd, from 1992 until he retired in 2006. His scale was consistent.

    The change we made last year was to move the cheap-eats reviews from Thursday’s Preview to Sunday’s Life, and we were clear about the reason for the switch: to save money. Rather than having two reviews weekly, one each in Sunday and Thursday, we now give readers one review every Sunday, alternating between unstarred cheap-eats reviews, written by Celina Ottaway since last year, and starred reviews of more expensive places, written since January 2007 by Ruth Fantasia. We didn’t change our policy. We did consolidate the number of reviews and where they appear.

    Regardless, the switch doesn’t change the fact that it would be absurd to evaluate restaurants as ambitious and polished as Dale Miller or Yono’s on the same four-star scale as Al-Baraki, the Lark Street hole-in-the-wall that’s basically takeout but has fantastically yummy fries with garlic paste. It would also be misleading to readers, a category mistake, like asking Jeffrey Steingarten to taste-test chewing tobacco.

  5. Vanessa permalink
    June 25, 2009 6:36 pm

    SNAP!

  6. June 26, 2009 10:06 am

    A note from the Profusser, just in case you have subscribed to the comments for this thread.

    I thought Steve’s thoughtful comment deserved a thoughtful response. As a result I promoted my response to the weekly Fussy about Criticism post. You can find it here: https://fussylittleblog.com/2009/06/26/dare-to-compare/

    Enjoy.

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