I received an email from an avid reader and devoted restaurant enthusiast asking, "Are you grading on a curve?" He went on to pull quotes from my review showing that I was either underwhelmed by the food at Kupros Bistro or entirely unimpressed with six of the seven dishes mentioned. One exception was the poutine, a French-Canadian dish composed of French fries, gravy and cheese curds. Enjoyable poutine - especially in poutine-free California - is not enough to carry a restaurant.
He wasn't arguing with my review or my taste in restaurants. But he wondered if I had given too high of a star rating to Kupros, given my feelings about the food.
"You need to call this what it is: a truly poor, or at least very sub-par showing by Kupros. One-for-seven just doesn't cut it in any aspect of life, including spending our hard-earned dollars in restaurants. It almost seems as if you are giving Kupros a bit of partial credit based on past performance, something which is utterly irrelevant to someone dining there today," he wrote.
That's a very fair question. No, I was not giving partial credit for past performance (the chef who opened Kupros, John Gurnee, was doing excellent food). If anything, I was extra tough on Kupros because of Gurnee's style and daring with the menu. The restaurant said it wasn't ready for San Francisco-type fare in Sacramento and let Gurnee go. Of course, he promptly landed a job in San Francisco at a restaurant run by the Tyler Florence Group. More than a few sophisticated diners in Sacramento would find Kupros' conclusions a tad insulting.
But I did cut Kupros some slack with my overall rating of two-and-a-half stars, which pencils out to "pretty good." The atmosphere is very nice. The servers are friendly and somewhat knowledgeable. The bar is good and trending toward very good.
But after thinking and rethinking what I would give for an overall score before I sat down to write, I felt that the restaurant had done enough to deserve a close look by people who had yet to visit. Anything lower than "pretty good" is essentially telling readers "don't bother."
I do think Kupros is worth a look, but its strength is clearly with the bar. It's big, it's attractive, it's different. So, when I came up with the final tally, I graded more for the bar experience with the food secondary. Yet, I can see how some readers could disagree with this. It's not a science, this job.
So I asked my email correspondent what he would do in my shoes? After taking me to task, what rating would he have given Kupros, being mindful of the weight such a rating would carry with a new restaurant, and considering that the owner invested heavily to restore a dilapidated building and bring new energy to 21st Street's dead-after-5 p.m. former reputation. I also told him that I continue to get angry emails from readers who either don't understand the role of the critic or who simply don't think it's appropriate for me to criticize restaurants the way I do.
This reader was clearly a sharp guy. I read several of his reviews on Yelp and they all show a love of food and a respect for places that do things the right way. I like Magpie more than he does, and he likes Hawks a little more than I do. But other than that, we pretty much see things eye to eye.
His answer was instructive, and it shows that the more you think about it, the more difficult it can be.
"I'm sure you feel a greater pressure to moderate your criticism given your wide audience. You certainly wouldn't want to feel like you had a role in crushing the dreams of some enterprising restaurateur, no matter how mediocre the food is, so I don't exactly blame you for taking a measured tone in this criticism. Unfortunately, a lot of people look just at the stars and only skim the article; they would be left with a more favorable impression of Kupros than one who read the article and is looking mainly for good food (rather than a food/bar combo).
"Alas, I have to also agree with your assessment of my hometown as a small one in some respects. People just don't roll with the critical punches like they might in a big city, and seem to take critiques of their personal favorites, well, personally. I'm sure you endure tons of such letters, both from those who love places you don't, and those who disliked places you've enjoyed.
He continues: "Funny, but the more I think about it, I probably would have scored the restaurant very similarly to you if in your position. This is a strange conclusion as it pretty much undermines the whole reason I wrote you in the first place, but perhaps it illustrates the constraints of the "star" system, compounded further by the verbal descriptors ("fair", etc.) accompanying them. I simultaneously envy and do not envy your job for these very reasons. As long as you are very clear and descriptive about the dining in the text of the article (and you certainly were), I suppose the stars should be seen as only a very rough summation."
This is the kind of person I would like to invite along during the review process sometime. It would be interesting to hear his perspective before the review is written. And perhaps he might find it revealing to see all that goes into putting a review together so that it appeals to a wide range of interests and satisfies several obligations: it has to make sense, be fair-minded in its conclusions, ethical throughout the process, meaningful in some way to serious food readers and interesting, enlightening or entertaining to casual readers who simply enjoy learning about a restaurant but may have no immediate interest in eating there.
Those are the things I have to consider each week we publish a review. Sometimes, the answer is very clear, whether a place is really good or really bad. Less clear - and more challenging - are places like Kupros that have mixed results and, so far, at least, haven't really figured out a strong identity and a clear message they can project to new customers who walk in the front door.