Saturday, December 05, 2009

Plain Speaking

No doubt about it: Harry Truman was blunt. As a straight-as-an-arrow Midwesterner, he called it as he saw it, with little concession to political niceties. On Nixon: "He's a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in." On MacArthur: "I fired MacArthur because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was." On Daniel Webster: "He was a windbag. He made a great many orations, and I imagine he did a very good job, but he was still a windbag " No wonder an oral biography of him was entitled "Plain Speaking."

Candid judgments such as these do more than just entertain: they can point us to which products to buy and which to avoid. It does no one any good to spare the truth, with the possible exception of the creators. That's why it's helpful to have a movie reviewer such as Mahola Dargis offer up this appraisal for the new "Twilight" installment: "The big tease turns into the long goodbye in this juiceless, near bloodless sequel about a teenage girl and the sparkly vampire she, like, totally loves." Think I'll skip that one.

This is especially the case with restaurant reviews. A new place opens up, and you eagerly await the appraisal of the pros whose job it is to take stock. Their detailed assessments help to illuminate the good, the bad and the ugly: "Average food, not worth the price." Or "I hate being packed into a restaurant like a number, there is no personality and no appreciation." Or "Not really my cup of foam." Guess we'll be making pasta at home again tonight.

To make it easier, many reviews cut to the chase at the end and reduce it all down to an empirical total. While the Zagat guide rates establishments on a 30 point scale in each of 4 categories, most make it much more concise. Be it stars or chef's toques or thumbs ups, the math is what counts: if there're four you expect it to be good, and if there's one, you expect it'll be closing soon.

One would think that leaves little wiggle room. Still, trying to be more user friendly, several years ago The New York Times adopted a more plain speaking approach. In its suburban restaurant reviews, it eschewed the purely objective to go with the more subjective. Hence, establishments were noted to be Excellent, Very Good, Good, Satisfactory and Poor.

Still, I guess that one man or woman's Good is another's Satisfactory. And in a society where casual speak has become dominant, where "Hey" has replaced not only "Hello" but even "Hi," where every merchant feels it's more friendly to call you by your first name when they return your credit card, those terms were obviously deemed to elitist. And so in a little noticed recent change, they took another swing, and changed the rating to be in more in line with contemporary thought. Henceforth, that new Greek place down the block will be rated Don't Miss, Worth It, In a Pinch and Don't Bother.

It's an increasing moment of frivolity for the Times, which more and more seeks to make itself more relevant to an audience that is drifting away. How else to explain the increasing use of puns in its headlines (For the aforementioned "Twilight" review: "Abstinence Makes the Heart... Oh, You Know." Or this one on Black Friday: "This Year, It May Be Wise to Skip the Shopping Maul.") They do seem to be trying their establishment best to reach out and amuse the masses, though there's little chance that they will be turning into Daily News anytime soon, and or beat my favorite lead from the Post, "Headless Body in Topless Bar."

One wonders just how far the Times will go. Frankly, we're all pressed for time these days, and so even four plateaus is probably too much. What we really want is a Roman Coliseum verdict as to whether that new bar-be-que place merits a visit or not. So I propose they do away with the niceties and give us a straight up or down vote at the end. Call it as you see: from now, simply tell me to Eat Here, or conversely, It Sucks.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves it when a waitress tells him not to order something. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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