Dine: New ratings reflect dining scene changes

In Allegheny County, restaurants opened at a clip of 15 or more a month in 2013. This growth and vitality leads to an abundance of choices for where to dine out.

To provide clarity, it's time to simplify restaurant ratings. I'm moving away from the three-category ranking of food, service and atmosphere -- which included an overall rating -- to a single-category, four-star system. It's a change that aligns with many regional newspapers and magazines around the country. Here's an explanation of updated ratings:

A one-star rating is satisfactory. A few dishes or the atmosphere distinguish a restaurant that has room for improvement.

A two-star rating is good. The restaurant conveys a clear mission through its food and drink menu as well as execution of dishes. Service is competent and the atmosphere is engaging.

A three-star rating is excellent. The restaurant is inspired. It features an interesting menu of dishes that show care and skill. The service is polished and the atmosphere is engaging. It may offer a thoughtful beer, wine or cocktail menu that shows knowledge of the genre.

A four-star rating is superlative. A groundbreaking restaurant such as this one pushes diners' expectations for cuisine, service and atmosphere. It is a rarity.

Zero stars are reserved for restaurants that fail to satisfy the basics.

I'm making this change after many conversations with chefs and readers about restaurant ratings and the current star system.

"Critic reviews can be a great tool for owners, managers and chefs in our efforts to continuously improve our restaurant (and our city)," wrote Jeff Catalina in an email in which he suggested an update. He's owner of Verde Mexican Kitchen & Cantina in Garfield and Tender Kitchen and Bar in Lawrenceville.

Mr. Catalina also acknowledged that narrative is more important, and I concur. But readers and restaurants also appreciate the benchmark of stars, especially in a community in which restaurants are diversifying at the rate they are in Pittsburgh.

The four-star system aligns with the guidelines of the Association of Food Journalists, which emphasizes that the star system should not be a "hierarchy of elegance." Ratings should align with how restaurants fulfill what they're trying to accomplish.

The AFJ guidelines also stipulate that critics should wait "at least a month" before visiting a restaurant for review purposes. "If a restaurant must be visited because of timeliness, enormous reader interest or journalistic competitiveness, consider offering readers 'first impressions,' " more descriptive than critical.

A review is intended to benefit both restaurateurs and diners, with diners the priority. Publishing a review one month to six weeks after opening is standard in most cities. Yet I still field requests from restaurant owners to wait until they're ready. As I've addressed in past columns, Pittsburgh restaurants can and should compete with restaurants within their genre in comparable-sized cities. Pittsburgh restaurants do not need a crutch.

In my columns for the coming year, I'll address what captivates diners as well as their concerns. I'll explore successes and challenges within the industry. I'll look at how the market is sustaining so many restaurants and how owners are finding qualified staff, considering that Pittsburgh is facing the same nationwide shortage as other cities.

For reviews, which appear in the Thursday Weekend Magazine, I'll continue to look at chef-driven restaurants, mom-and-pop places, ethnic spots and creative concepts from do-it-yourselfers. This is the tapestry that makes Pittsburgh dining so dynamic right now.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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