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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

To review or not to review? Take our survey and read our thoughts

A sign at the outdoor host stand asked diners to wear a mask at La Voile on Newbury Street during the first day of Phase 2 of reopening in Massachusetts in June 2020.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In early June, I went to dinner at Sarma. Notably, I went to dinner inside Sarma. I was fully vaccinated, it was my first meal in a restaurant dining room since the COVID pandemic began, and I could think of no better way to celebrate than meze and cocktails at chef Cassie Piuma’s Somerville ode to Eastern Mediterranean flavors, one of the area’s best restaurants. (The other obvious contender for first meal back would have been Eastern Standard. Pour one out forever.)

But I wasn’t just here for the asparagus ladolemono with Greek pimento cheese, the feta gnocchi, the sesame fried chicken with tahini remoulade. I was here to document the feeling of return. I wanted to write about the joy of being able to dine out safely once more. I was with one of my favorite dinner companions eating some of my favorite food. I felt like I could breathe again, literally and figuratively — like maybe we would all be able to breathe again. And yet the joy felt darkened, burdened, by an uncertainty I couldn’t shake. I held off on writing the piece. I feared I might soon have to retract it. (I also feared I was being neurotic, but this past year has really validated my gloomier tendencies. Thanks, past year!)

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I ate a few more glorious indoor meals, with friends old and new, by myself at crowded bars, taking in the scene, listening to the music of conviviality and togetherness. It felt so good. Then came Delta and the breakthrough cases in Provincetown. Uncertainty wasn’t going anywhere. Nor was the country’s fear, anger, mistrust, or bullheadedness, the garden of greater good choked by the sowed seeds of division. (Forgive me. It’s gardening season. Can I interest you in a cucumber?) One begins to wonder just how much of the Greek alphabet we are going to have to memorize.

One of the challenging things about the current moment is not knowing where anyone is coming from until, unless, they tell you. In any given room, some of the people are fully vaccinated while others might be snorting livestock meds to own Big Pharma. Who knows? When that room is a restaurant, the stakes are higher. Even if people are wearing masks, those must come off at some point. Mask and vaccine mandates are increasingly returning or being introduced, but until, unless, they are more than piecemeal, the onus lies on operators and staff: Ask customers to wear masks? Require proof of vaccination? Reports from the ground indicate that harassment of hospitality workers has already intensified. As it has been throughout the pandemic, restaurateurs are left to figure out how to balance business, staff safety, and public health. And diners must calibrate their own comfort levels, which may or may not match those of their family and friends.

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So: How to write about restaurants right now? What do readers want, and what best serves you? How to be an advocate of the consumer (for whom I believe critics serve as imperfect stand-in), fair to the industry, and honest as a writer and human? I receive messages from readers and restaurateurs advocating for the return of “real” reviews, the kind with stars. This is good for the industry and diners both, it shines a light, it sets standards, they say. Other readers and restaurateurs opine that now is not the time to be critical. It’s unfair given the ever-changing COVID landscape, a serious labor shortage, supply chain issues, and increased costs. During the pandemic, restaurant critics across the country generally pivoted away from negative or mixed reviews; many have since returned to writing them, but without star ratings.

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Here’s my take: No one is wrong. Both are valid arguments. Wild, huh. I love me some gray areas. I’m going to ask you to sit in them with me for a while. And I apologize, because I know these accommodations are not always comfortable or desired.

Here’s where I’m coming from: One of my guiding principles throughout the pandemic has been to model what I believe to be best practices, i.e. those dictated by science. Would I like a vaccine? Bartender, make mine a double. Masks? Don’t mind if I do. I won’t miss colds or the flu or random men on the street telling me to smile, either. Laws, which are like mandates from another mother, compel us to do or not do many a thing. We already live under a lot of them. Ones that exist to keep large swaths of general society from dying are generally good by me. I’m grateful to live in Massachusetts, where more than 70 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine dose — Comirnaty now! — and a statewide mask mandate for schools is acknowledged as common sense. Elsewhere in the country, schools that opened without one are already shutting down due to COVID outbreaks, and some hospitals are running out of pediatric ICU beds.

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Signs about masking and vaccinations were posted on a window at the Governor Bradford Restaurant in Provincetown on July 31. Matt Cosby/New York Times

Like many, I live with someone who can’t be vaccinated — my son, who is under 12. This means my best practices may now be different from yours. At this very moment, for me, indoor dining feels like too much of a risk to my child. To some of you, that will seem too conservative, perhaps downright snowflake-y. I can’t do anything about that beyond be transparent. Like everything these days, safety is a moving target. Things could, and likely will, look different next month, next week, tomorrow. For now, I’m eating outside and getting takeout. Whether due to Delta or winter, my patio experiences are sure to be limited. We’ll see where we are as we get there.

As for stars, I don’t know when I will return to them, for reasons that have little to do with COVID. Critics always have a mixed relationship with ranking systems, which feel reductive but are also useful and, frankly, fun for readers, as well as something to aim toward (and use as marketing) for restaurants. Before the pandemic, my editor and I were already thinking about changes to the 4-star system we have always used. It’s narrow: Maybe we should move to 5 stars. Maybe we should move to a different system entirely, such as one based on how far a diner should travel to eat at a restaurant.

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The one upside to the pandemic, for me, has been a chance to take a step back and think deeply about how we cover restaurants, what we want that coverage to mean and how writing reviews can continue to feel meaningful, even viable. Restaurant reviews have generally critiqued businesses through the lens of and for the well-off who frequent them, when potentially exploitive qualities of the industry can be baked right into the business plan. With their thin margins, restaurants can be hard put to succeed if they treat workers fairly and equally, compensate them well, pay their own bills, and price menus according to diners’ expectations. Some aspect of the equation needs to give (it’s the prices, or the business model as a whole; see: pop-ups, ghost kitchens, delivery services, and so on). Some years ago, the Globe dispensed with a column called “Cheap Eats,” because it cordoned off restaurants serving international cuisines, mom-and-pops, unfancy spots, and other places we most love to eat as being somehow unworthy of a “Dining Out” review. Over the course of the pandemic, which unfolded in tandem with the Black Lives Matter movement and increased discrimination against AAPI communities, alongside conversations about social and economic equity and justice, the need for media to open its scope has been clearer than ever. In addition to informing consumers about where (and sometimes where not) to spend dining dollars, the way I think restaurant reviews can remain meaningful and viable is to cumulatively tell the story of the region, the city, the neighborhoods, the communities.

To hear stories and learn things: That’s why we all started reading in the first place.

I’d like to know what you think. Do you want to read critical reviews? How do you feel about stars? What other kinds of stories would you most like to see? And what is your current thinking about dining out? Take our online survey at globe.com/food, if you have a moment. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and, one day, writing once more about the joy of dining without uncertainty.

With the continually shifting COVID landscape, what do you want from restaurant coverage now — and going forward? What is your current approach to dining out? Take our survey and let us know what you think.


Devra First can be reached at devra.first@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.