It's no huge secret that the star system used by L.A. Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila has been controversial and confusing at times. Over the last few years, she's handed Fabio Viviani a giant goose-egg and awarded The Bazaar full general status, not too long after snatching three stars from a molecular Ludo Lefebvre at Bastide. A mother lode of restaurants that have recently captivated Los Angeles, including .ink, Mezze, Sotto, Picca, and Son of a Gun, have been left to tread water in her preferred two and two-and-a-half star solar system, while Wolfgang Puck, Jordan Kahn, and the denizens of Chez Jay have all slammed her reasoning using words other chefs reserve for private conversations. Now the artist formerly known as The Food Section announces it will do away with the regularly baffling ratings. Is this what Virbila's critics have been waiting for?
While we'd like to believe this new approach is a result of J. Gold swaggering in and cleaning house, the L.A. Times skims an explanation as to why the ratings are out. Editor Russ Parsons (who has had to explain and defend the system in the past) admits the current culinary landscape has made it too tricky to rate food trucks, gastro-pubs, and white tablecloths within one system. As we know, the more casual approach frequently gets the short end of the stick for atmosphere, service, and deafening rackets from Virbila, though we don't immediately recall her hanging out at any loncheras as of late. Parsons also says this whole circus of the stars has "never been popular with critics," never mind what chefs have to say.
On the one hand, it feels like every city should be able to maintain a system to easily guide diners from the misses to the hits. A ratings system might normally be a useful guide for eaters who are eager to hit the scene without getting into the specific shades of every moment. We still feel the sense that a busy megalopolis like ours should have a reliable system that works quickly, rather than one that has perhaps proved ineffective in the past.
At times, Los Angeles's critical scene already feels sort of thin, with self-celebrated and gushed-over discoveries offered for us all to rally around, and many chef-driven projects seemingly ignored; a possible side-effect of the years spent puffed up defensively against the many outsiders who don't get us. Currently, we only enjoy the thoughts of two weekly critics (and even less so now that Virbila has gone bi-weekly and Gold's been transitioning to the new gig), neither of which enjoys telling us where not to waste our money, instead casting waves of raves to crash on our shores. Could the loss of ratings sap more actual criticism and sting from our paper in the long run?
Parsons nails the most positive aspect of ditching the star system by saying the celestial points "reduce a thoughtful and nuanced critique to a simple score." Who couldn't agree with that? Week after week, we see Virbila share enthusiasm for a place, as in her review of the homey charms of Maximiliano, only to have our minds boggled when we find it's only received one-and-a-half stars, which ultimately feels like a slam.
A starless review could give Virbila a fresh start and the chance to express herself without simplifying complicated feelings into "like" or "dislike," allowing readers to draw their own conclusions based on their relationship with the writer. Given past grumbles about the star system, the new approach is nothing if not a chance for the paper to press the restart button on its restaurant coverage as it launches into the next stage of its evolution.
What are your thoughts on the scrapping of the paper's stars? Let us know whether you think it's a positive or negative in our comments.