Written In The Stars
The three-star handouts to Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen and Hully & Mo by the Morning News certainly got folks excited. As for the big man's place, I can't say--never been there. I did try the latter once. But as this was about a week after they opened, it would be unfair to comment.
What I do know is this: star systems are generally flawed from the outset and therefore quite difficult for any critic to handle with precision.
Essentially, stars require the critic to place a hard value on something. While the review itself may point out the 'ifs' and 'buts' and other nuances of cooking and atmosphere, those celestial markings demand a clear-cut 'this is worth' kind of assessment. In addition, the system forces critics to compromise on matters of cuisine and venue.
For example, he or she can group every restaurant into one big pool, in which case a basic taqueria stands no chance against the city's upscale venues. Or the paper can divvy up the market into categories, so a sports bar ends up with the same symbolic evaluation as a fine French kitchen.
Either way, there's a problem--although the second seems a little more fair, somehow...as long as readers know the criteria.
At my previous paper I inherited a star system. I chose to be a hard-ass about it. Lumping all the restaurants together ensured that pubs serving decent, inexpensive fare earned one star--perhaps two. There was no way around it; impossible to justify three stars for above standard burgers and fries when a place honored by Michelin, working with the freshest ingredients, preparing dishes with great intricacy, is limited to four.
I was never comfortable granting stars. And, as you notice, the Observer compels readers to slog through all kinds of prose for an understanding of a restaurant's relative worth. Same with D magazine.
Not sure if our method is better, mind you. Stars do provide readers a convenient shorthand--and easy way to compare dining options. However this, too, creates issues. Just about every kitchen messes up, from time to time. In discussing these errors, a three star review may read like something less deserving. Guests visiting a restaurant on one of their off nights may look back and wonder about the critic's sanity.
Perhaps it would be best to employ a hybrid of the two, relegating burger joints and sports bars to star-less reviews, reserving the symbols only for fine dining restaurants. Yet even this...
Ah, well. Personally, I prefer to do without stars. But I sympathize with Leslie Brenner. Doling out those little bastards ain't easy.