The Dallas Morning News’ new dining critic, Michalene Busico, moved from California to take on her position just over a month ago, and started by doing a deep dive, learning the landscape. One of the promises she made in a column addressed to readers upon her arrival, was to revamp the newspaper’s star rating system. This meant an archival dig through the history of Dallas dining and dining reviews (the journalistic equivalent of doing one’s homework).
The fruit of that labor appears in an article that appeared in print last week, in which Busico looks at 40 years-worth of DMN dining reviews. (Cue fabulous, grainy, black-and-white photos of chefs in toques holding platters of carved butter swans.)
She describes the process of asking for diners’ input (a survey opportunity was sent out in July). The sample size was small (124 responses), but adequately enlightening. The biggest take-away for me was that the responses finally showed that noise in restaurants is a chief complaint not just for those of us who spend our evenings there, but for the civilian diner. I’m glad someone finally did the research.
Ultimately, though, the star rating overhaul doesn’t go very far, it does is clear the outdated language. From the beginning, five stars for the DMN meant a fine-dining establishment. Single stars were awarded to more humble places or sub-par execution. The new system shifts from a five-star to a four-star scale (in line with other major publications, such as The New York Times and Washington Post). It also opens up the top-rating category, so that the rating may be given to a casual establishment without the trappings of fine dining, but with a grasp of a cuisine that makes them a “benchmark.” (Cue, this time, the names of the city’s best taquerias or spots for soulful Vietnamese.) You can see the full rating rubric below.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure this will differ radically from former dining critic Leslie Brenner’s approach. I wrote for Brenner and wrestled with the star system in reviewing, for example, humble Thai and barbecue spots. Save for the coveted five-star rating, I’m not convinced the three- or four-star range was barred from casual or niche dining. In many ways, the new rating descriptions merely formalize what was in practice happening anyway.
Ultimately, for the diner, it may not be all that different to see a two-star designation in the new versus the old system, particularly with the muddying factor of half-stars (!).
But what may, perhaps, be quite useful is the information that will follow reviews, which will address availability of parking and noise level. It may be heartening to see that the first instinct for Busico was to listen to diners. And to know that a taqueria could earn four stars. Other than that, I don’t think the new star system has shaken the heavens.
The DMN’s new star rating rubric:
4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)
3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the D-FW food scene)
2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)
1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)
No stars: Poor (Not recommended)