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Stars and Gripes: C-J’s star ratings are an offense to serious restaurants

by Steve Coomes

The first time I read a one-star restaurant review in the New York Times 20 years ago, I thought surely then-critic Ruth Reichl (the best there ever was) was teeing it up for a long-ball lashing.

Former New York Times restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl, the best there ever was.

I was wrong.

Reichl raved about the food as some of the best Chinese chow she’d ever had and that it was also nicely priced. In several ways she said readers must come there if they liked great Chinese food …

… but know ahead of time that the Chinatown spot was a dump and that the service was terrible.

For the uninitiated who only glanced at that lone star, the verdict was, “I won’t go there. It got one out of four stars.”

But those who read the piece caught a different message: Come here expecting great food, but little else. If that’s OK with you, you’re going to love this place.

That review came to mind Saturday night while dining at Corbett’s: An American Place. As I took time to admire the beauty of the restaurant—its classy appointments, cushy booths, delicate and  polished place settings, suave servers—and ate one of the finest meals of my life, I recalled a complaint Mehrzad Sharbaiani, owner of both Z’s Oyster Bars here, shared with me about The way The Courier-Journal rates restaurants.

What was known back then as Z’s Fusion (that downtown restaurant was renamed Z’s Oyster Bar last year) had just received a 3.5-star review from the C-J. Sharbaiani thought critic Marty Rosen’s comments and criticisms completely fair and had no complaints.

What bothered him was literally hundreds of other restaurants that received at least three stars over the years.

Décor at those restaurants was nowhere as pricey and stylish as Z’s, their wine lists weren’t nearly as well-researched, their kitchens didn’t include the talent he’d hired, and their bartenders were little more than tap pullers.

“All that needs to be taken into account to be truly fair,” Sharbaiani told me a few years ago. “The food might be good at these places, but where’s the experience? Where’s the skilled service? Where’s the significant investment into the dining room like I’ve done here? I feel all that is overlooked when I get three-and-a-half stars and a restaurant nowhere near as serious as this gets the same or close.”

And he’s exactly right. It’s not fair. Or even sensible.

At the time I was doing some contract work with the C-J and shared Sharbaiani’s concern with an editor there—who promptly dismissed my concerns with a “how dare you question us?” air of contempt. Eager to keep that revenue trickle flowing, I backed off and bit my lip.

Still, the condescending retort irritated me since I wasn’t some amateur asking a stupid question. I was a dining critic at the time for Louisville magazine, I’d spent 11 years working in Louisville’s best restaurants, and I’d traveled to several countries to write about food.

I sincerely wanted to know why the C-J scored the way it did, but apparently I was too much of a swine at which to cast such pearls of wisdom.

So I emailed C-J critic Marty Rosen and asked him why the paper’s star system wasn’t more like the New York Times’.

Caricature of Courier-Journal dining critic, Marty Rosen, who, in his line of work, must remain anonymous.

In a lengthy and well-considered reply, Rosen said stars awarded reflected whether that restaurant—be it a pub or a palace like Corbett’s—was the best it could be, or the best such example of its kind in town.

In a later conversation over beers, he expanded, saying he’d never give the city’s best BBQ joint four stars even if it were miraculously good. Four-star reviews were granted only to those elite places that achieved them, he said, but added that three-star barbecue was highly possible.

I still disagreed because such arbitrary rankings create an unavoidable double standard, i.e. while three-star barbecue makes me think “I can’t miss that!” three-star fine dining makes me think “That doesn’t sound worth the money or time.”

Which brings me back to my meal at Corbett’s, which was truly extraordinary. (Full disclosure: chef-owner Dean Corbett and I do a weekly radio show together, so we’re friends. There was whole lotta spoilin’ goin’ on, so take that into account when reading further.)

How can anyone go into a restaurant like that, be appropriately amazed at what they do, understand that it’s so far beyond the experience delivered at all but a handful of restaurants in town, and then consider giving it anything less than four stars—when compared to the hundreds of others not even in its league that received three?

Even if you dined at Corbett’s (or Lilly’s or Seviche or 610 Magnolia or the English Grill or The Oakroom or Proof on Main or Jack Fry’s … etc.) on an off night, it would still be so markedly better than the next step down in restaurants that you couldn’t fairly consider them as being near the same realm when doling out stars.

For example, on Nov. 23, the C-J gave Barret Bar and Grill three stars.

On Nov. 29, it gave Li’l Cheezers sandwich shop three stars.

On Dec. 6 Asiatique, long one of the town’s sharpest operations, got four.

On Dec. 13, Proof on Main, always a dandy, got four.

Really? Proof and Asiatique are only one star better than a grilled cheese shop and a bar?

Why is that such a big deal? Because we live in a society that reads far too little in the first place. Way too many people merely check the stars without checking the words justifying them—which was one of Sharbaiani’s fairly founded fears.

If the C-J didn’t limit how far you could go back through past issues to see Rosen’s reviews online, you’d venture a long, long way to find a two-star write-up.

To me, such a long string of three-star awards for many very average restaurants is disrespectful to the far-above average spots that really make this dining community unique and increasingly well-known nationwide.

To say that Z’s Fusion was just a half star better than a grilled cheese shop is an opinion bereft of fairness and perspective—regardless of how slap-your-momma-good the grilled cheese is.

To say that Proof on Main was just one star better than the Barret Bar is like saying Jane Lynch is nearly as hot as Gisele Bündchen.

Just because Bellarmine University and the University of Kentucky recently won national collegiate basketball championships, their players, their competition and their coaches aren’t separated by a single star on a four-star scale.

If you put both teams on the same court and let them have at it full speed, fans would see the difference in two minutes and poor Bellarmine would be seeing stars!

And why is it no such “three stars for everybody” faux-equanimity is given people judged harshly on the C-J’s sports and editorial pages?

(Could it be because advertising losses are at stake? Just a guess.)

When UK loses, woe betide coach John Calipari and his uber-talented teams.

When Sen. Mitch McConnell cracks wise about Pres. Barack Obama’s golf game, hellfire and brimstone rain down on his increasingly shiny pate.

But when an average-looking, midlevel-reaching restaurant produces food and service as good as the critic thinks it can be within its own abilities, it gets three stars.

I rate that line of thinking zero stars.

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  • http://SommelierinSneakers.blogspot.com/ SomminSneakers

    I think this is incredibly well written, and also, an incredibly good point. One of the reasons I love Louisville is the fine dining scene, a definite step up from other cities comparable in size.

    Do you think the controversy of introducing a separate scale(perhaps a five star), for fine dining establishments, probably over what designates ‘fine dining’, would be too much trouble to make such a change worth it?

  • http://SommelierinSneakers.blogspot.com/ SomminSneakers

    I think this is incredibly well written, and also, an incredibly good point. One of the reasons I love Louisville is the fine dining scene, a definite step up from other cities comparable in size.

    Do you think the controversy of introducing a separate scale(perhaps a five star), for fine dining establishments, probably over what designates ‘fine dining’, would be too much trouble to make such a change worth it?

  • Joey Saylor

    What I really have a problem with is that seemingly EVERY restaurant that is über expensive gets 4 stars, EVERY single time. I have read the CJ reviews for many years and you can bet as sure as taxes that a restaurant that is considered to be a wallet buster gets top ratings. I won’t name any names, but some of these places are definitely not what they are cracked up to be. Price does not equal excellence and I think it’s pretentious to give a place a glowing review because you want to come across as a real “foodie” (hate that word btw). There are many places where you get excellent food (plenty of it too) and service that get 3 stars just because they don’t have wealthy clientele or place a small piece of meat on a white plate with a little garnish & a drawing. Fact.

  • Joey Saylor

    What I really have a problem with is that seemingly EVERY restaurant that is über expensive gets 4 stars, EVERY single time. I have read the CJ reviews for many years and you can bet as sure as taxes that a restaurant that is considered to be a wallet buster gets top ratings. I won’t name any names, but some of these places are definitely not what they are cracked up to be. Price does not equal excellence and I think it’s pretentious to give a place a glowing review because you want to come across as a real “foodie” (hate that word btw). There are many places where you get excellent food (plenty of it too) and service that get 3 stars just because they don’t have wealthy clientele or place a small piece of meat on a white plate with a little garnish & a drawing. Fact.

  • steven

    O.K.. . . This is my take. . .First of all, THANK GOD the previous reviewer moved on to other career pursuits.She single-handedly destroyed several locally and regionally owned restaurants.It should ABSOLUTELY be a requirement that a reviewer have previously OWNED a restaurant and know what it is like to have invested and have your life on the line.
    and Secondly, Please. . Folks.. the reviews have to be conducted anonymously! And hopefuly give a place a few visits.I can’t tell you how many of Louisville’s finest restaurants I have worked at when “The Word” came through, the chef, GM, et al, dropped everything and went and waited hand and foot on the reviewer.One owner left a catered wedding reception at The ZOO and “Magically appeared in the open kitchen and later prepared by hand, desert”(Exact quote).
    I recently worked at a recently awarded 4-star joint that Had Marty Rosen’s picture posted non-visible to the public at the host/hostess podium.
    Thanks for reading.

  • steven

    O.K.. . . This is my take. . .First of all, THANK GOD the previous reviewer moved on to other career pursuits.She single-handedly destroyed several locally and regionally owned restaurants.It should ABSOLUTELY be a requirement that a reviewer have previously OWNED a restaurant and know what it is like to have invested and have your life on the line.
    and Secondly, Please. . Folks.. the reviews have to be conducted anonymously! And hopefuly give a place a few visits.I can’t tell you how many of Louisville’s finest restaurants I have worked at when “The Word” came through, the chef, GM, et al, dropped everything and went and waited hand and foot on the reviewer.One owner left a catered wedding reception at The ZOO and “Magically appeared in the open kitchen and later prepared by hand, desert”(Exact quote).
    I recently worked at a recently awarded 4-star joint that Had Marty Rosen’s picture posted non-visible to the public at the host/hostess podium.
    Thanks for reading.

  • Joey Saylor

    Robin Garr is working for Leo now and does the same thing there. You can tell in her reviews she gets ticked if her & her “friends” don’t get better service than anyone in the restaurant (the most common slight is ALWAYS service). On the plus side her Louisville Hot Bytes web site is a good place to find out dirt on local restaurants.

  • Joey Saylor

    Robin Garr is working for Leo now and does the same thing there. You can tell in her reviews she gets ticked if her & her “friends” don’t get better service than anyone in the restaurant (the most common slight is ALWAYS service). On the plus side her Louisville Hot Bytes web site is a good place to find out dirt on local restaurants.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/KUKH76OFWH4NC5XMRDEKL6HIJU Richard

    FYI, Robin’s a guy.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/KUKH76OFWH4NC5XMRDEKL6HIJU Richard

    FYI, Robin’s a guy.

  • Joey Saylor

    Uh, OK then…uhmmmm. Sucks to be him/her/it/whatever!

  • Joey Saylor

    Uh, OK then…uhmmmm. Sucks to be him/her/it/whatever!

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