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Friday, January 25, 2013

On star ratings

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Have you seen the local newscast that actually rates the weather on an 11-point scale? It's called the Wizometer scale, and is just another insane indication that people tend to crave easy ways to establish relative value. Whether it's wines (100 points!) or movies (two thumbs up!) or restaurants (5 STARS!), we inherently seek cues to help us gain confidence in our choices. But do we really need to be told the relative merits of a sunny, 80 degree day versus a cold, drizzly, traffic-inducing communal depression?

In any case, as a restaurant critic, I get to take part in the madness of awarding subjective ratings. The whole endeavor has been discussed and dissected many times, including here at Creative Loafing - as in Besha Rodell's post from a year ago in which she expressed a desire to do away with the whole mess. Interestingly enough, Besha just re-introduced stars for her reviews for L.A. Weekly, using a very similar scale to the one still in use here at Creative Loafing.

Which is all a preface to saying that we are very happy with our star scale. The number of stars awarded really comes down to how I would sum up the overall experience of a given restaurant to a friend - from poor (ZERO stars), to fair, to good, to very good, to excellent, to extraordinary (5 stars). Price is not a primary factor in the star rating (though will definitely be called out in a review if a restaurant offers particularly good or poor value), but service and general atmosphere certainly play a significant role. Worth noting: even a hole in the wall can have great service and atmosphere.

You're not likely to see very many 0-star reviews, nor are you likely to see many (if any) 5-star reviews. The reality of dining out in Atlanta is that the majority of restaurants that we consider as worthy of reviewing in the first place are likely to fall into the categories of "good" to "very good" - meaning 2 or 3 stars, with a smaller number earning 1 or 4 stars. It's a classic bell curve. I've actually gone back over the past few years worth of reviews here at Creative Loafing just to make sure our current calibration fits with the past, and it holds up very well. (By the way, the most recent 4-star review was Bacchanalia in November 2011, and the most recent 0-star review was Briza in March 2012).

So how good is 2 stars? Just look at the last few months of reviews here. Lure? Yebo? Ammazza? They're all good restaurants, and all have some aspects that delivered above the 2 star level and some that prevented them from earning more than 2 stars overall. Are they worth a drive across town in rush hour traffic? That's your call.

Then there's a place like The Spence, which earned 3 stars - VERY good. There are many dishes and other aspects of the Spence's dining experience that could have placed it in contention for 4 stars. But there are also enough little areas for improvement at the Spence that characterizing it as "excellent" overall would have been a bit of a stretch at this point in the restaurant's growth.

I should state, too, that our scale is not at all equivalent to what you might find on a site like Yelp. Four stars there is described as "Yay! I'm a fan," which is certainly a much lower threshold than "excellent." And I'm not going to comment on the credentials of an average Yelp reviewer.

In the end, though, stars are just a shortcut to what we hope to convey about Atlanta's restaurants. We hope they help you get a feel for a restaurant's relative place in the world, but we really hope that you read each full review and come away with a much more nuanced take on each restaurant's merits (or lack thereof!). In the meantime, I can't wait until Monday. It's an 8 on the Wizometer scale. That's good, right?

Of course, we're always listening. Feel free to let us know your thoughts and suggestions on stars and reviews.

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