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Wednesday, September 18, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Star ratings send some readers into next galaxy

Six months into my job as the lead restaurant critic for The Seattle Times I received my first e-mail from the man who would become my most faithful correspondent. "I thought you might appreciate hearing from someone who (with his wife) has always turned to the restaurant review first," he wrote in June 1999.

That introduction led to a thoughtful discourse on what he perceived as my inconsistency in star-rating and what he viewed as a heavy hand in awarding three stars.

"The reason I have taken the time to write," he said, "is that you might consider writing about your value system some time so that we can understand what you mean when you give your ratings."

I took him up on that challenge, albeit in a personal rather than a public way. My response came in the form of a two-page, single-spaced letter written at 2 a.m. on a sleepless night. In it, I defined what a three-star restaurant meant to me.

"In accordance with the Times' star-rating guidelines, three stars means 'highly recommended,' " I wrote. "Which means that when it comes to the 'big three' (food, service, atmosphere), I can highly recommend the place, simple as that."

I championed my three-star ratings of several casual neighborhood restaurants, saying that each lived up to its potential by doing everything it was attempting to do. "Should I assume that, because they aren't 'fancy' restaurants, they're not deserving of a 'highly-recommended' rating?" I asked. "Of course not.

"One more thing that I'd like readers to understand," I told him, in closing. "You need to trust me, to take into account that I've eaten much more than I've had space to write about and had many experiences that couldn't fit into 17 column inches. This, too, is reflected in those star ratings."

I thought about his letter and my reply recently when I received an e-mail bearing the subject line, "About today's review of Kisaku Sushi." I read on. "I went there for lunch to check it out," said the reader, who'd obviously wasted no time taking me up on my recommendation. "Pleasant place and all, but how could you rate a restaurant '3-stars' when they use fake crab in their California rolls? Fake crab is not really any kind of food. They have no shame serving it, and it's probably indicative of what other corners they may try to cut. ... I really thought your reviews were something I could count on. Now even this has to be questioned. Can nothing be depended on anymore?"

After nearly four years as the Times' restaurant critic, I can depend on this: There always has been — and always will be — readers who disagree with my assessments. I wouldn't want it any other way. Reviewing is a subjective endeavor, and I insist that it be viewed that way.

My opinion is informed by nearly 20 years spent waiting tables, influenced by many years of dining out and writing about it, and encompassing a love of — and interest in — every aspect of the food world. As readers, you're entitled to your opinions and, as always, may beg to differ. Do you ever!

My recent review of the new upscale, Thai-accented restaurant Harbor Place pointed out inconsistencies and several serious flaws. It also inspired a couple of scathing responses from readers who vehemently disagreed with my 1-½-star rating. Among their comments: "After suffering your reviews for two years you finally show your pompous spiteful self in your review."

You just can't win in this job. Profess your love for a restaurant, and someone else is certain to hate it. Call a place on the carpet and you end up flat on your back, staring at the boot, awaiting a swift kick.

So, why do I look forward to such heartfelt give-and-take? Because it means you're reading, you're paying attention, and you're mad enough to let me know how you feel. What you have to say always makes me sit up and think. And here's what I think:

It's time we had a little discussion about star ratings. Call it a variation on a theme. The same theme I expounded upon on that sleepless night in 1999 when I wrote to my now-faithful reader: "If there were one thing that I could change about my job (other than the fact that it keeps me from losing weight), it would be getting rid of star ratings. Frankly, I hate them." Still do.

Standing in judgment and finding creative ways to put that judgment into words is tough enough, but putting a number on the sum of my experience makes a daunting task even more difficult.

So, why star-rate? Because restaurant reviews are a consumer-driven product, and consumers love stars. I star-rate for your benefit, because doing so offers a quick tool for comparison, culls the wheat from chaff and, to quote my pal, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema (who, by the way, doesn't star-rate in his new, Other Coast position) it "keeps us honest." 3

Every publication that star-rates does so in its own peculiar fashion; ergo, it pays to read the ratings key, just as it pays to get to know your critic's likes and dislikes: We all have 'em. For the record, Seattle Times restaurant star ratings (which run with each review and proudly bear no resemblance to Michelin) are as follows: four stars/exceptional; three stars/highly recommended; two stars/recommended; one star/adequate. Half-stars afford the opportunity to lean a bit further in either direction.

Star ratings reflect an assessment of food, atmosphere and service, taking price into consideration. They are generally awarded after three visits, made with accompanying diners in tow. My reviews are also — and please bear this in mind — dated. For good reason. To name a few? Chef changes, management changes, new menus, departed servers, economic cutbacks, resting on laurels, blah, blah, blah.

I cringe when, rather than carefully read what I have to say, people immediately ask, "What did she give it?" What I strive to give is an honest, informative and entertaining look at my overall restaurant experience. Of course, my attempts to entertain don't always go over big with my readers.

"Your sharp tongue (perhaps not as attuned to taste as you think it is?) has struck again," wrote one woman after last year's two-star review of Ten Mercer. "I am once more reminded of what a sad mistake was made when The Times hired you to do food reviews. When you criticize, you do so with such a mean spirit! If you hate a place and its food that much, why not just skip it altogether?

"Mean spirit"? Ask anyone who knows me: There's not a mean bone in my body. "Hate" a two-star-rated restaurant? Two stars translates as "recommended." And that was exactly what I was doing: recommending Ten Mercer, albeit with several pointed tsk-tsks and caveats.

As for the "Why not just skip it altogether?" question, I have to paraphrase my mother and ask my ticked-off reader, "What are you, made out of money?" I'm certain that most readers aren't. And I'd like to think that they view my services as an opportunity to allow them to spend their hard-earned dollars wisely.

Getting back to my faithful reader, whose informed and thoughtful opinions (as well as those of his wife) I've come to welcome and respect. In that first letter, speaking of longtime Seattle Times restaurant critic John Hinterberger, he wrote: "We found John pretty reliable and consistent. We came to know that anything under two stars did not merit a trip, that two stars was OK and average, that 2-½ stars was better than average, 3 stars was very good, 3-½ stars was very superior and 4 stars was an extremely rare thing."

While I'll admit that I often disagreed with Hinterberger's star ratings, as well as some of his reviews, I can't say that I disagree with this astute assessment of his star-rating system. And I'm convinced that there at least, we're on the same plate.

Nancy Leson: nleson@seattletimes.com

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