Monday, March 12, 2012

Should restaurants be rated?

The Los Angeles Times announced last week that it will no longer put ratings on its reviews.

Lots of things are changing in the Times' food coverage, including the end of its standalone section and the hiring of Pulitzer Prize winner Jonathan Gold away from LA Weekly.  But this change resonates beyond California, particularly for the crowd of wine lovers who hate the 100-point scale for reviews.

(Disclosure: I contribute occasional wine and spirits articles to the Times.)

The Times has used a 4-star scale for restaurants. It doled out four stars more sparingly than any major paper I know. I clicked on a link that purports to list the "top reviewed restaurants" and came up with two -- Patina and The Bazaar -- for the entire SoCal area. The Times is not the Restaurant Advocate.

Now, though, it's going to be all text, no numbers. Many will argue that this is the proper means of analyzing any subjective experience.

I am not among them.

Food Editor Russ Parsons made a two-part explanation of the change (the bold italic is mine):

"First, star ratings are increasingly difficult to align with the reality of dining in Southern California -- where your dinner choices might include a food truck, a neighborhood ethnic restaurant, a one-time-only pop-up run by a famous chef, and a palace of fine dining. Clearly, you can’t fairly assess all these using the same rating system. Furthermore, the stars have never been popular with critics because they reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score."

The first point reminds me of a discussion wine critics have often about ratings. If I judge a Sauvignon Blanc that's fairly simple but food-friendly, should I judge it against all Sauvignon Blancs, where it might score in the 90s, or against the universe of all wines?

Let's call this argument categorical ratings vs. universal ratings.

Most critics of most things rate on the universal scale, so items in whatever categories are perceived as lesser always suffer: Beaujolais, horror movies, comedies. And from restaurant critics, casual dining spots.

My two favorite food stands at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco are Roli Roti and 4505 Meats. Roli Roti's porchetta sandwich is a 4-star sandwich and it's there every week; people queue up for it. The 4505 Meats patty melt is a daily special I had once that I still daydream about. Either of these two sandwiches is close to perfection and as good a dish as I can get in San Francisco. On a categorical ratings scale, they deserve 4 stars.

But neither stand has any seats, a wine list (sigh) or real service. So would it be fair to give them 4 stars and, say, Commonwealth 3 1/2?

Let's go to Yelp and see how this popular site resolves this deep philosophical issue: Oh, by letting anyone give 5 stars (or zero stars) to gas stations and endodontists.

The food intelligentsia likes to mock Yelp, and indeed, many of the people posting there clearly don't understand the food they're reviewing, based on what they write, or the concept of relative ratings.

But Yelp ranks restaurants by aggregate user ratings, and people use them. Not only that, people like them.

On Super Bowl Sunday I went to Golden Gate Bakery for egg custard tarts. A 20-something Chinese American was behind me in line. He asked nervously, "Where are the dumplings?" He was hosting people for the game, so he went to Yelp on his smart phone, put in "takeout dim sum," and went to the place with the highest rating in that category. Had he bothered to read the reviews, he would have learned Golden Gate Bakery doesn't do dumplings and is known solely for its egg custard tarts. I told him to get some of those, since he was in line already, and sent him to a mediocre takeout dim sum place around the corner; there wasn't time to get all the way out to Jook Time. Nor was there space on his phone's screen to read even my mini-review of it without scrolling multiple times.

It's easy to mock this guy, but he wasn't stupid, ignorant about dim sum or uncaring about quality. He was just using his cell phone seeking information, like many Americans do, and cutting to the chase. In this case, Yelp let him down. But usually it will not.

The Times has now sacrificed this reader and all those like him to Yelp.

I've been in and around newspapers for most of my career, and for that entire time editors' and publishers' conventions have had hand-wringing seminars about how newspapers don't attract enough young adult readers. Yet even as technology changes, they keep making decisions based on old readers' value systems. You, the reader, should spend some time with the review; you shouldn't look for an easy shortcut like a rating.

Yes, granddad.

As for Parsons' second point that I put in bold italics: It's true, many critics don't like giving ratings. But just because a task is unpleasant or difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.

I think there will be chatter this week about what a great move the Times is making, and much of it will come from food critics. Some will come from the crowd of wine lovers who hate the 100-point scale.

Yet the overwhelming majority of ordinary people like ratings. There's no backlash at Yelp to get rid of ratings. Or at Trip Advisor, or any other site that gives information on specific businesses. I've never seen movie fans complain about ratings on Rotten Tomatoes or music fans complain about ratings on Pitchfork.

Many of the ratings-hating minority are professional writers, whose arguments are both eloquent, and positioned on powerful pulpits. I remember tasting at a wine event once beside a guy who was drunk and could only say, "You think it's a 90, well it's a 92 for me." I don't want him writing tasting notes, but that doesn't make his opinion invalid. He was trying to express himself and he wasn't a professional writer. I get what he was saying; he liked the wine better than I did. A little bit better, but not enough to make it a must-have memorable wine. Ratings are communication: very efficient communication. I never understand when the communication industry wants to make communication less efficient.

I'm a writer; it's nothing for me to whip out 100 words describing how I feel about a wine. And I've never been entirely comfortable with the 100-point scale. Using it is one of the hard tasks I have to do if I want to write about wine, because most readers would look at a 700-word piece about seven Riojas and say, "Which one is best?"

At the risk of irritating an editor who gives or withholds assignments, I have to say I think the Times is making a mistake. By not servicing a large part of its reader base -- by not letting them immediately learn on their cellphones which Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood it likes best, for example -- it is ceding them to Yelp. The newspaper industry needs more readers, not fewer. I don't think star ratings were turning readers away, but their absence will.

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Chris Smith said...

One question that I didn't see in your article is do people even look to newspapers for quick restaurant advice and if they don't, does it matter that they won't have ratings anymore?

W. Blake Gray said...

Chris: Is that a question? No, it's not, is it?

I don't believe a good business model in the information business is: "People don't want information from us, therefore, what we give them doesn't matter."

Chris Smith said...

I don't think that people don't want information from newspapers anymore, just that the type of information people want from newspapers has changed. If I want to quickly find a place to eat, I'll check Yelp. If I want to read a review that makes me want to eat somewhere, I'll read the paper. I don't need a rating in the newspaper because the review should tell me if I would want to eat there or not.

W. Blake Gray said...

Chris: Newspapers need more readers like you!

Unfortunately they also need more readers of all kinds.

Sean Millard said...

Great article. Maybe the Times' audience doesn't care about ratings and they have research to support this. If not, and their audience is just like the overwhelming majority of other consumers, then the move away from ratings--however noble its intent--is just bad business. Consumers today want a quick, easy way to research what they want and ratings are the simplest way to do that, regardless of its inherent flaws (i.e, those mentioned in the article).