It’s times like this that I really miss Mrs. Fussy. There is some important and timely local food news to comment upon, but unchecked, my tone may come off as smug, pompous or self-important. Perhaps even a combination of all three. Luckily I’m aware of my tendency towards self-promotion. So I will try to keep this subdued.
Most likely the recent changes at the Times Union had nothing to do with what I have written in the past about Ruth Fantasia nor the policy of which restaurants receive starred reviews.
Here’s the executive summary. We have a new sheriff in town, and her name is Cheryl Clark. She is taking over restaurant reviews from Ruth Fantasia and Celina Ottaway. Ruth Fantasia will stay on as features editor, so I suspect her hand may still be felt in the restaurant reviews for the foreseeable future.
I’m excited for the change, and have high hopes for the reviews to come. There are pros and cons to every potential reviewer. My biggest concern given Cheryl’s close relationship to the restaurant community, is does she have the fortitude to pan a restaurant that sorely under performs, or will she look for the silver lining. In my mind it makes no sense to have a four-star scale and only use three of the stars.
But I digress, because beyond the change in the reviewer, there is also a change in policy which I think is even more notable.
Almost two years ago, the Albany Times Union published a policy statement about which restaurants would receive starred reviews. It went like this:
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.
About a year ago, the tide seemed to change. Although there was no formal change in policy, Steve Barnes wrote a three star review for Jake Moon, which is exactly the kind of inexpensive restaurant that I thought should be considered in the same league as its significantly higher priced competitors. And after that, I was glad to have found some common ground with the Times Union reviews.
Still, I was delighted—absolutely delighted—when I read the following revised policy statement from this past Sunday’s paper [boldface added for emphasis]:
The general dividing line between the two categories is the price of dinner entrees: less than $12 or $13 for Order Up, higher for Matters of Taste. A restaurant’s style and aspirations will also dictate whether it receives a starred or nonstarred review. An eatery that offers comparatively expensive takeout would still be an Order Up review even if customers spend $20 or more person, for instance, but a little bistro with table service and a respectable wine list would qualify for a starred, Matters of Taste assessment despite charging only $10 or less for entrees.
Clearly, the reviews were moving in this direction anyway. But it feels great to have it formalized and in print. Also of interest is Cheryl’s definition for her star ratings. She went on the record saying:
No stars means truly unworthy of consideration, with no redeeming qualities. One star: below average for the area. Two stars: average. Three stars: above average. Four stars: exceptional, the best the market can offer.
A careful reader will see, “for the area” and, “the best the market can offer.” These two small phrases don’t sit very well with me. But I’m going to give it time and see how it plays out. In the meanwhile, I’m going to once again applaud the Times Union for recognizing that great food can come at all price points, and I am glad that these worthy establishments will be getting their chance for a full starred review.