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Friday, March 23, 2012

Starred reviews: Is it a marketing thing?

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Besha filed a post Feb. 28 about the latest brouhaha over the use of stars in restaurant reviews. This issue has come up repeatedly as long as I can remember.

Eater has posted links to a few other critics who have jumped into the fray. It's interesting reading, although the consensus is predictably ambivalent.

Most of the discussion is about what the stars require of critics and what they mean to readers. But there isn't much, if any, discussion about stars' effect on restaurant marketing. Restaurants regularly include star ratings in their advertising. Yet, as everyone has noted, a media critic's one star can be handily rendered meaningless by anonymous Yelpers who dole out three stars without hesitation, often for covert reasons.

Still, can you imagine the Michelin Guides without stars? Eliminating them would kill a competitive system that elates and tortures the planet's chefs. That's not to say Michelin hasn't been the subject of controversy for years. But it's not going to give up the stars, three of which are as coveted as the luscious fruit eternally out of the reach of Tantalus. Actually, even one star is coveted.

Now, here's the somewhat icky part. Much of the pressure to use stars has been exerted, in my experience, by the business side of newspapers. I think this is less the case now, but in years past it was easier to sell an ad if the publication's critic had multi-starred the review. That's because reducing a restaurant's quality to a metric tends to make one err on the positive side. I know you've read reviews that actually seemed rather negative but ended with a better-than-average star rating. Stars are easier to sell than words. (Then again, woe be unto the critic who grants half a star to a restaurant that's already been advertising.)

Linton Hopkins
But how do chefs themselves feel about the system. Eater just published some commentaries by well-known chefs about the system. Among them is Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch Public House. He's as thoughtful as ever. A sample:

Coming up the ranks, there's always a metric that is your goal — in New Orleans it's the five beans, if in a Michelin town it's the three stars, and of course, the New York Times review, etc. As a chef, I'm uncomfortable looking at what I do summed up in a couple of stars, but I do like the system as a goal; it resonates and crystallizes vision within a team....

I think the game to get the stars can bring out some pretty bad behavior from people, and overall, it's sometimes odd to reduce something so important, that involves so many dedicated people, to a metric. That's why I like film reviews, for example, that don't have a star rating. You have to read the piece and understand that there can be nuanced assessments.

That's not always true, but movie marketers are notorious for pulling positive statements out of otherwise meh reviews. And it also happens with restaurants.

In any case, I think the system is more driven by marketing than anything else.

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