Daniel, located on New York City’s posh Upper East Side, has been consistently ranked as one of the city’s finest restaurants since renowned chef Daniel Boulud opened it 20 years ago, and has been named one of the 101 best restaurants in America by The Daily Meal. In recent years, it’s enjoyed the company of Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, and Per Se as the only restaurants in the city holding down a perfect four-star rating from The New York Times, a very comfortable and lofty position. Not any more, however: on July 23 critic Pete Wells filed the first review of the restaurant since 2009, and bumped the restaurant down from four stars to three.
In filing the review, Wells took the exceedingly rare route of having some friends sit at a "decoy" table at the other side of the dining room. While Wells was recognized and pampered, his anonymous colleagues received more or less impartial service. That dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots played a part in the falling grade, as did a few dishes that he left unimpressed with: "A variation on Mr. Boulud's classic roasted sea bass with syrah sauce came with radicchio so bitter I wanted to slap it," he said, and "the restaurant gave the impression that it was trying to garnish its way to greatness." That said, any visitor to this restaurant will easily realize that it’s operating on a much higher level than some of the other three-star restaurants in the city, like Il Buco, Colicchio and Sons, and BLT Fish, but there are plenty of other three-star rated restaurants, like Babbo, Gramercy Tavern, and Atera, that are undoubtedly some of the finest in the city. That fourth star is only reserved for the absolute cream of the crop, which Daniel apparently no longer is a part of.
Naturally, chefs and other critics have chimed in with their opinions. Thomas Keller, oddly enough, congratulated Boulud on the rating via Twitter. Gael Greene added, "I've sent dozens of friends&readers to Daniel w/out making the rez for them. Never had a complaint. Of course critics get kissed everywhere." Grub Street’s Alan Sytsma responded with, "Smart, stone-cold move c/o @pete_wells, comparing notes w/ colleague dining at Daniel on same night, different table," and Eatocracy’s Sarah LeTrent sees the bigger picture: "Whether you agree with the stars or not, @pete_wells brings up important discussion of everyman vs. VIP when dining."
At a restaurant like Daniel, everyone dining there should be treated like a VIP, no matter who they are. Daniel remains one of the finest restaurants in the city, and — who knows? — it might get bumped back up to four when it’s next reviewed, which odds are will be within a few years.