We're changing our restaurant ratings system from 5 stars to 4 — and here's why

Forty years ago, on Oct. 20, 1978, The Dallas Morning News ran its first restaurant review with a star rating. It was for a French place on Lovers Lane called Marcel's, and it wasn't exactly an auspicious start. "The best bets are a smoky pate and the marinated mushrooms," critic Derro Evans wrote, "and the worst bets are anything else." The final tally: 1½ stars out of five.

Since then, through eight chief critics and thousands of reviews, the star system has remained pretty much the same. The top of the chart, five stars, rewarded "fine dining," the restaurants with white tablecloths and heavy silver, tabs that pay for a battalion of waiters and most likely a French menu. The bottom belonged to places with more humble surroundings — or to serious misfires, like Marcel's.

To say that times have changed doesn't nearly reflect how vast the shift in dining has been, particularly in the past 10 years. As every food lover knows, innovation and ambition, creativity and technique are no longer the exclusive province of the most expensive, formal restaurants. It's possible to be astonished by the food and the service, and even the surroundings, at every level of restaurant today, and it has been possible for a while.

The Dallas Morning News' first restaurant review was Marcel's on Lovers Lane, which published October 20, 1978.

Clearly, the measuring tool we use in our conversations about restaurants — the star system — was due for an overhaul. But with that kind of history, we didn't take it lightly. We started last month, when we asked you to tell us what you thought of the current ratings system. We heard from more than 100 of you, and overwhelmingly you wanted to change something about the stars, too.

We took a deep dive into our archives to analyze The News' history of covering restaurants here in Dallas. We surveyed major news organizations across the country to better understand how the quality of restaurants is generally assessed. We consulted a professor of audiology about noise levels (your No. 1 complaint) and, well, you get the idea. Our goal: to create a system that reflects what we are looking for in a restaurant today, not the trappings of bygone eras.

How much have restaurants changed? Here's a snapshot. In 1968, a News feature trumpeted the opening of the Pyramid Room in the Fairmont Hotel, anticipating a parade of "well-heeled Dallas epicures" to appreciate carved butter swans the size of house cats (there is photo evidence), chefs in tall white toques and dishes like Squab Prince Rainier and Prime Rib a la Chivas Regal (flambeed in Scotch!). Today, the Pyramid Room endures, but forget the toques and swans: The landing page on the restaurant's website shows a bearded chef and a primal assortment of cured meats, plus humblebrags about the "farm to table experience" and a vegetable garden on the rooftop.

Prince Rainier has left the building.

A 1968 Dallas Morning News feature trumpeted the opening of the Pyramid Room in the Fairmont Hotel, anticipating a parade of "well-heeled Dallas epicures."

Stars are born

Restaurants became a regular part of the coverage at The News in the 1940s, though they didn't command much respect. "Stranger than a bull in a china shop is intelligentsia in a kitchen," wrote Kenneth Foree in 1946, marveling about some unexpected creativity in a cafe on Forest Avenue. In the 1950s, food began to be treated more seriously, and in 1957, the newspaper launched its first food section, the Guide to Good Eating. In 1977, restaurants began to be reviewed as opinion columns in a new entertainment section — our own Guide. Then came a cryptic note from The News' executive editor.

"Tom Simmons summoned me to his office by sending me a little piece of paper with a star written on it," recalls Kim Pierce, the editor of Guide at the time and still a DMN contributor. "No words, just a star. I was like, what does this mean?"

It was Simmons' idea to begin rating restaurants with a star scale, and he asked Pierce to figure out how to do it. "This was at a time when fine dining was beginning to be redefined away from traditional French and Continental, influenced by the whole California movement and by nouvelle cuisine in France," she says. "Avner Samuel upset the whole applecart at the Mansion by daring to ask for fresh ingredients instead of canned."

The Pyramid Room restaurant at the Fairmont Hotel, in December, 1978.

The News was also locked in a fierce newspaper war with the Dallas Times Herald, and adding starred restaurant reviews was a way to one-up the competition. Pierce quickly set the parameters: They would review all the major restaurants, except fast food. Visit each of them at least twice with absolutely no advance notice. Always pay for all meals, always visit restaurants anonymously, and award ratings on a five-star scale. Simmons agreed to the plan, and in October 1978, Derro Evans let the air out of the soufflé at Marcel's.

Over the years, eight reviewers — now nine, including me — have sat in the critic's chair. Chronologically, it went from Evans and Pierce (then writing as Kim Martin) to Liz Logan, Betty Cook, Waltrina Stovall, Dotty Griffith, Bill Addison and Leslie Brenner.

Each interpreted restaurants in his or her own way, and there have been some incremental changes to the ratings, too. For a time, in addition to the overall ranking, there were separate ratings for food, service and atmosphere. "Smoking Area" was noted at every restaurant. Half stars were used, until Addison dropped them in 2007 — "A minor scandal at the time," he recalls — as part of a refinement of the criteria. Brenner eliminated the ratings for food, service and atmosphere — "Having separate ratings for each facet of the experience felt too fragmented and formulaic to me," she says — as well as added descriptions of noise levels and the health department scores. Brenner was also the first to drop the mask of anonymity, in 2014, and as you can see from the artwork here, we'll continue to do so.

Overall, the trend was toward simplicity and clarity, but the criteria still rewarded "fine dining" at the top.

Stephan Pyles' Flora Street Cafe was the last top-rated restaurant under The Dallas Morning News' former five-star system

Weighing the scales

In many ways, star ratings are a reflection of our taste, of what we value at the time. When we asked for your critiques last month, you told us a lot about that. Of the 124 responses, just 10 of you didn't want to change anything and only two wanted to drop the stars completely. The remaining 112 wanted something different.

You asked for more on affordable restaurants ("Let's eat where normal folks eat," wrote Perri Brackett, seconded by Ted Gold's imperative "Cost, cost, cost!"). Noise level was your top complaint, followed closely by parking. You're looking for restaurants in neighborhoods beyond Dallas, a broad range of cuisines, and more about wine and cocktails ("We are a boozy city," Marco Gonzalez noted, with gravity). You want a star scale that's intuitive and easy to use, and one that addresses ambience, service and general comfort in addition to the food. A few quiet "date night" restaurants wouldn't hurt, either.

Tillman's Roadhouse in the Bishop Arts District received a rare no-star rating (poor) in 2012 under the former five-star system. The restaurant has since made changes.

"Take us places that we would not find on our own, open the doors to food that is like travel to a new country," Michael Connolly asked. Perhaps that is the essential point of writing about restaurants, and going to them in the first place.

And so, without further ado, here is our new star rating system.

First, we are changing from a five-star scale to a four-star scale. A four-star system has become the editorial standard across the country, used at the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer (OK, it's four bells there). The restaurant website Eater's reviews in New York City and San Francisco also use four stars. We like the idea of being in step nationally, but we also like how the four-star scale encourages people to see the stars as we do: A star rating, even a one-star rating, is an endorsement.

More important, the criteria for the stars have also changed, in an effort to more strongly recognize accomplished, casual restaurants. Starting with my first review next week, restaurants will be rated with the following scale, which will include half stars. The crucial differences are: The top rating, which was formerly "defines fine dining in the region," is now open to restaurants in all categories. And the one-star rating, which was formerly limited to bad reviews ("Experience is generally disappointing"), can indicate an endorsement of a very low-key spot as well as trouble at higher-ticket restaurant.

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)

You'll find some new details in the box that accompanies the reviews, too. "Recommended" will cover both dishes and drinks; "GPS" will supply a tight survey of the dining room; "Parking" will warn about valet charges or scrum situations on the street. We're taking noise more seriously and have developed a decibel-based scale with Colleen LePrell, a professor of audiology at University of Texas at Dallas. As for wheelchair accessibility, instead of a simple yes or no, the route will be described. And the price key has been adjusted upward, to more accurately reflect current costs.

In addition to those changes, we'll award special citations when they're merited, including Exceptional Value, Exceptional Wine List and Exceptional Cocktails. With most reviews, we'll run a separate piece called Smart Order, where we suss out a way to experience the restaurant for a minimal amount of money.

We think the new system will be simple and flexible enough to recognize great restaurants of all kinds. What it won't do, though, is separate the taqueria from the temple of fine dining. Many of you suggested separate scales, and it makes sense to compare comparable things. But the reality of a multi-tiered rating system is more complicated, harder to use, less meaningful and somehow wrong. Restaurants shouldn't be partitioned off by type when they are all part of the Dallas dining scene. And comparing the stars at one place to the stars at another is a fallacy: Each restaurant is considered individually and rated on its own merits, not in comparison to others.

In the end, the most thoughtful thing we can do is revamp our single, overall scale in a way that will give more recognition to great places without million-dollar budgets. Now, let's see how it works.

Chelsea Watkins contributed research to this report

CORRECTION, 4:45 p.m., Aug. 23, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Colleen LePrell as a professor of audiology at University of Texas. She teaches at University of Texas at Dallas. In addition, Prince Rainier was misspelled as Prince Ranier.

CORRECTION, 11:15 a.m., Aug. 24, 2018: Avner Samuel was identified as Avner Samuels.

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