The Latest Dish: New dining critic, new system for rankings

Everyone loves to hate a critic. As the recent (and wonderful) film "Ratatouille" suggests, we seem to think of critics as people who failed to accomplish anything themselves.

While I am the new restaurant critic for the Post-Gazette, I promise that I am not a failed chef or restaurateur. I have studied culinary arts in Pittsburgh and in Florence, Italy. I recently staged -- the culinary term for an internship -- for several months at an iconic Northern California restaurant, giving me a small taste of the life of a cook. I have also had the chance to dine at numerous outstanding restaurants in the United States, France, England and Italy, meals that have helped me develop my palate and my critical voice. My most important credential, however, is my unstinting passion for food and for dining.

Dining has always been compared to theater. A show cannot be a success if the audience isn't paying attention. I believe that the role of a critic is not merely to point out what may have gone wrong in a meal, but most importantly to reveal to an audience the many intricate aspects of food, service, ambience and value that make dining out so right.

Great restaurants cannot exist without educated, passionate clientele to hold them to consistently high standards. The act of criticizing something should never be a lecture, but always a conversation.

I hope as your critic to begin a conversation about food that will increase our collective knowledge, encourage Pittsburgh's growing and maturing restaurant scene, and enhance your pleasure in dining.

With that said, we plan to do something different with our star ratings. We understand that such rankings are serious business -- for the restaurants and for their prospective customers.

I am all too aware that often people merely glance through a review and make their dining decisions based solely on the number of stars posted at the bottom. And in the past, the Post-Gazette has relied primarily on a rating system in which a one-star restaurant was not really worth a visit, while a two-star meant it's more of a miss than a hit.

While this system may appear to be user-friendly to readers, allowing them to save time and money they might have wasted on inferior restaurants, it also severely limits a critic's -- and consequently the public's -- ability to distinguish among different levels of quality.

Rating sytem
= Good
= Very good
= Excellent
= Outstanding

The new star system will be founded upon the idea that any restaurant that receives a star rating has merit, whether it is good food, good service or pleasant ambience. Food, service, ambience and value will all be taken into account.

Occasionally I may visit a restaurant and determine that it necessitates review but cannot be awarded a star. Fully aware of the possible results of such a review, I fervently hope that such occasions will not arise.

It may take readers and restaurants some time to adjust to the new system. Restaurants that have previously garnered three- or four-star ratings may be awarded two or three stars.

This change should not necessarily be taken as a sign of decreasing quality. I plan to reserve four-star ratings for restaurants that offer truly transcendent experiences, the kind of meals that you will remember for years to come. To receive four stars, a restaurant must demonstrate real excellence in every aspect of the dining experience.

We are making this change because of our belief that Pittsburgh restaurants deserve the respect of a serious rating system that holds restaurants to consistently high standards on par with other cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. I hope that you, our readers, will also hold the restaurants that you frequent to a high standard, acknowledging areas that need improvement while still celebrating Pittsburgh restaurants for all the things that they do well.

Post-Gazette restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at or 412-263-1198.


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