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Departed Maine Sunday Telegram Critic Nancy Heiser Weighs in on the Star-Rating System

Recently departed Maine Sunday Telegram restaurant reviewer Nancy Heiser wrote to Eater Maine with an explanation of her approach to using the five-star rating scale employed by the newspaper. Heiser announced her planned departure in September after nearly three years of writing reviews every other week. Her final review ran on Oct. 27. Here are her words in their entirety:

I'd like to submit a word or two on star assessments — at least mine, now that I am done with reviews for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Stars are a dicey business. They have some merit, in that they add a shading to the text. On the other hand, sometimes that's all that some people look at, and they miss the nuances behind the grade. I'm not a big fan. I tried my best to keep grade inflation at bay from the start.

Worth remembering is that MST stars are assigned on a five-star scale, a scale set before I started reviewing. So, two stars from Pete Wells of the NYTimes (which works on a four-star scale), for instance, might be 3.5 or even 4 from me.

Also worth noting is that Wells' reviewing is a full time job, and he visits several times and tries everything on the menu. He has days and weeks, not a few hours, to write up his assessment. I am not making excuses, just noting the constraints that any MST reviewer will have.

I am a freelancer and approached the job as an educated and frequent diner, not a culinary expert. I felt my job was to let people know what to expect at many types of restaurants across the state.

I reviewed about 85. Only two got 5 stars from me, noting an extraordinary experience. A few more than that earned near the lower end — two stars, or two and a half. None got only one star — although I kept an eye out. No restaurant was truly abysmal. This is a hard thing to find (thankfully); I think it would not have been in business if it was. The one restaurant that got a star and a half deserved to be out of business (and now it is, and not because of my review). Most restaurants were in the average range — that is, worth visiting. So, a bell curve, if you will. A few were excellent, very few rose close to perfection. If they did, 4.5 was the mark for them. In sum, any place that garnered 3.5 from me I would go back to in a heartbeat.

I hope readers found value in my columns. I will continue to write about Maine, but the next project will focus on travel. Of course when you travel, you gotta eat. I will be writing about those spots in a less structured format. — Nancy Heiser

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