The New York Times Restaurant Critic Takes on America
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Attention, chefs across America: It’s time to post that photocopied mug shot of The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells in locker rooms, at host stands, and on the back of swinging doors in kitchens everywhere across the country. Unless you want to end up like Guy Fieri, that is. That’s right, Pete Wells is now reviewing restaurants nationwide. Wells noted on Tuesday, along with his review of Saison in San Francisco (coming just weeks after his double review of two notable Houston restaurants), that he intends to set a precedent as Times restaurant critic and "cast a wider net."
Does Wells, or any New York restaurant critic, have any business reviewing restaurants in other cities? There’s a certain amount of New York know-it-all-ness that other cities might object to, depending on how the critic reviews the treasured restaurants that draw him and The Times expense account to seek them out. When Wells reviewed Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant, some observers (most notably Fieri himself) criticized the review's "agenda factor." Consider what some might say if Wells were to pan some other city’s treasure — say Benu in San Francisco, or god forbid, one of José Andrés' rabidly loved restaurants in Washington, D.C. (a city with a perpetual chip on its collective shoulder about its dining scene and how New Yorkers view it). "New Yorkers blah, blah, blah, we have great restaurants, why don’t you go back to your own city and blah, blah, blah, review Shake Shack again or something."
Not that anyone should be completely shocked by Wells' move. He does, after all, have a background that includes time at two national magazines, as articles editor at Details for five years and "Always Hungry" columnist for Food & Wine for three. And good for him for having previously expanded the scope of The Times critic's role with his forays into Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and even New Jersey, representing a welcome and laudable look beyond the provincial boundaries of the narrow strip of Manhattan that The Times’ previous restaurant critics have largely held themselves to. How amazing is it that he will now have the leeway to expand provincial Gothamites' horizons still farther, maybe heading out to Chicago to try an Achatz meal, taking a turn at Meadowood in Napa, Calif., stopping by The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tenn., or heck, who knows?, maybe eventually even taking a tour of Osaka’s best sushi spots, Lyon's best bouchons, or Manchester's best pubs? It’s all potentially going to make for a much more informed critic, and by extension a much more informed dining public.
Reached for comment, several of America's premier restaurant critics agreed.
"Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for The New York Times reviewer(s) to eat away from home on a more regular basis," said the Washington Post's restaurant critic Tom Sietsema. "Since I became the food critic for the Washington Post in 2000, I’ve been filing regular dining dispatches (Postcard from Tom) from around the world for our Travel section. In that time, I’ve filed from more than 40 cities."
Esquire columnist John Mariani echoed,"The Times’ principal restaurant critics have long covered the restaurants in other cities as features — from Craig Claiborne on — so the change is only marginal. I for one, heartily endorse such coverage for two reasons: one, The Times fashion, art, dance, and theater critics cover other cities’ shows, and two, it allows The Times critic to get a better sense of what is actually going on elsewhere in the world of food."
The Atlantic's Corby Kummer also thinks it's a great idea, "Mostly because if I learn to trust one critic’s taste, I’d like to know what he or she thinks about restaurants I’m likely to go to in any number of places. What matters is the voice and the critic’s taste, and I trust Pete on both, and just look forward to reading him. And besides, The Times might soon be the last publication to pay a critic to dine all over the country, so let’s all be the beneficiaries while we can!"
No doubt. And the idea of encroaching on another critic's territory seemed, at least in this informal survey, to be a non-issue.
"I’m lime-green with envy that Mr. Wells enjoys that sort of funding and support," said the Chicago Tribune's restaurant critic Phil Vettel. "And as for my turf, if I can call it mine, it's already overrun with competing critics, bloggers, Yelpers, and anyone with a smartphone. I welcome any additional input, particularly from an informed source. I suppose some New York City restaurants might prefer the undivided attention of The Times’ restaurant critic, but I imagine outlying restaurants are thrilled at the prospect of a little New York Times ink."
That's a good point: the new policy means that New York City and its surrounding areas, one of the most restaurant-rich regions in America — is going to be getting less coverage now.
Noted San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, "I think it’s fine that Pete is visiting restaurants outside New York. After all, with the Internet we’re in a global community anyway. What he’s doing doesn’t encroach on what I do. As he clearly stated in his Diner's Journal piece, he’s not giving stars, so this really isn’t a review. It’s kind of a 'first impression' not unlike what I might do when I head to Pete’s city or what national magazine writers do all the time."
But that's kind of the problem isn't it? Wells doesn't plan to give stars to his out-of-metropolitan-New York reviews. "Times critics," he wrote in the online Diner's Journal column, "traditionally visit a restaurant three times before awarding stars, so we can assess consistency, sample a wide range of the kitchen’s work and simply take our time before summing up a restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses in a number that probably won’t be revised for a long time. I don’t see any practical way to have three meals at the same place in California while still eating my way across New York City, short of cramming several visits into the same short trip, which would defeat the purpose."
Not that there isn't precedent for such a feat, he admits. Craig Claiborne, the original Times restaurant critic (and arguably the original restaurant critic, period), reviewed restaurants — and gave out stars — in Albany and, yes, Washington D.C., among other places ("It isn’t misplaced charity to suggest that the restaurants of Washington have a certain wayward charm," Claiborne snarked). But, adds Wells, "I’d like to know how he managed it, but I won’t be following in his footsteps. As excited as I am about reviewing restaurants that matter across the country, I don’t intend to skip out on New York City every three weeks. "
Sorry, but the idea that you couldn’t fit in three visits to a restaurant in Denver or Miami or wherever over the course of two or three months seems a little, well, privileged. We're only talking, what?, one non-New York review every month or six weeks? You could hit at least two review-worthy restaurants in one city twice in four days if you planned well enough in advance, and if you just started doing it instead of announcing it — doing it in a way that would encourage chefs across the country to put up all those photocopied mug shots of you. But back to those stars.
'I completely understand his not wanting to award the places he visits in other cities stars, which would involve multiple visits," Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema said. "I don’t rank my out-of-town subjects, either. Given that I might be away only two or three days, I’d much rather give readers a bigger taste of say, Chicago or London or Beijing, than focus on a single restaurant."
Look, the star debate has been going on forever. Wells wrote his own defense of The Times star system last year at just about this time. He made reference in that piece to one of the country’s most well-respected critics, Jonathan Gold, who moved the Los Angeles Times away from a star system. That’s cool. It’s also consistent. Jonathan Gold isn’t gallivanting over to New York, or any other important city, and "reviewing" restaurants in a way that’s different from the way he’s doing it at home.
Neither should Pete Wells. Not without holding himself to the same standards he does back in the Tri-State area. Wells somewhat archly noted in his defense of the star system that he’d looked around for a "leather-bound volume of criteria for awarding stars that Craig Claiborne wrote on parchment paper with his ostrich quill, using squid ink he harvested himself off the coast of Long Island" and couldn't find one. As he goes on to admit, "Actually there never was such a book. Before I took over as critic I was the Dining editor, and I worked with the critics Frank Bruni and Sam Sifton. If there were criteria for handing out stars, I imagine I would have seen them."
That’s nice. Funny, too. But shouldn't there be criteria for this scoring system that can make or break restaurants with a pica or two of type? And if there aren't criteria, then how can we compare a four-star (or no-star) Sifton or Bruni review with a similarly scored one by Wells? You’d think that The Times would hold itself to a higher standard. Shouldn't somebody, some group of somebodies, decide on the basic mechanism for awarding stars, and record their decision in a Word doc, a spread sheet, a note scribbled on the back of a cocktail napkin, a squid-ink document on parchment paper?
If you award stars to restaurants in your home city, then (A) shouldn't there be codified rules ensuring consistency of value for those stars, and (B) shouldn't you apply the same standards to everybody, at home and abroad? Or not? What do America’s chefs think? That’s the next question.
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