Want to know what former New York Times dining critic, Frank Bruni, likes to eat at home after a night on the town as the paper's columnist for The Tipsy Diaries? Read about his most recent gig, his first cocktail, and his go-to drink in this Q&A.
What’s the question you wish you were asked about being the NYT critic but rarely, if never were?
There wasn't one question above all others, but there were/are two things I always wished I could help readers understand better than they probably did. One is that a restaurant is an ever-changing, ever-shifting, different-every-night experience. It's not like a book, a movie, a building or other objects of criticism. So when a friend or acquaintance or reader would say, "I TOTALLY disagree with you about that restaurant," or, "You were dead wrong," it could be frustrating, because it might be the case that there in fact wasn't a significant difference of opinion at play.
It might be simply that I experienced the restaurant in a given period of time, on three particularly good or bad nights, and the other person, on his or her one or two visits, happened upon a different set of conditions. The other is that it's possible to love a handful of dishes at a restaurant that you return to frequently and, at the same time, not to believe that the restaurant deserves a particularly high star rating.
For me, star ratings largely reflected how well the restaurant met all of its promises and executed all of its menu and met the reasonable expectations of a fairly representative diner whose quirks weren’t necessarily my own.
What’s your favorite thing about doing The Tipsy Diaries?
I love bars and restaurants --love the atmospheres they create, love the feeling of being in them. So my favorite thing is having a special reason and motivation to spend time out on the town. It saves me from watching too much TV! Are there things you find you need to do differently as the Tipsy Diaries columnist re: eating, imbibing and exercise? The Tipsy Diaries runs every two weeks and doesn't require the sort of time investment or x-nights-out-every-week regimen of reviewing. I had to be much more conscious of exercise and such when reviewing.
What's the first cocktail you ever remember having?
I don't, but I fear it was a sloe gin fizz. When I was 15 or 16 or something like that and sneaking into bars in Hartford, Conn., with friends, I remember drinking things like the sloe gin fizz, the white Russian, the black Russian: drinks I pretty much abandoned within a few years and never order and consume now. Back then I treated cocktails almost like dessert. My palate skewed sweet. Now I much, much prefer cocktails that aren't sweet.
I got totally busted the first time I got drunk. It was a Sweet 16, my parents picked me up and it was an embarrassing mess that ended with me throwing up in the car. Got a funny first-time drinking story?
I got too drunk too many times when I was a teenager, but as an uncle with nine nieces and nephews who either just became or are about to become teenagers, I don't look back and think of those incidents as funny. They seem dangerous and I feel lucky that none of them took any sort of lasting toll on me. I'm no killjoy---heck, you know that, Arthur---but I want to be careful here, and in my column, not to seem to encourage excessive drinking, which does nobody any good.
Gin, rum, tequila, vodka, what’s your poison?
Among the four you name there, my favorites are gin and tequila. I also love bourbon and rye
Don't have one. My beer preferences change a lot with weather, setting, mood. And I drink much less beer than I do wine and cocktails.
Do you have a go-to drink, a favorite, one you always order?
There's no "always," but I probably have more gin martinis than any other single cocktail.
Is there a drink you use as a barometer of a drinking establishment? They make that well, so you can pretty much be sure they’re going to be okay?
No one drink, but I'm always curious to assess whether an establishment's "specialty cocktails" all skew sweet or whether they're nicely balanced. That tells you a lot about what kind of drinker the place is courting.
I’m tired of the tiki trend already, what do you see as a possible next drink trend?
Boy, I don't know. Who saw the tiki trend coming, you know? What I know is that no matter what the trend of the moment, bars that have engaging, intelligent bartenders and carefully made drinks will always, always be popular, whether or not they have hidden doors or hollowed coconut shells.
What’s your take on some of the bizarre cocktail names out there? Do you fall for them? Find yourself enjoying falling for them?
I wrote a Tipsy column about the bizarre names and how those names come to be. They're right on the line between amusing and just plain silly, and on which side they fall is in the eye of the beholder---or drinker, I should say. I'd never order a drink for its name, nor would I NOT order a drink solely because it had a horrid name. I’m looking less at names than ingredients, proportions. The name is just window dressing. The taste matters much more.
What's your favorite thing to eat when you get home after you've been out having a few drinks?
There's no one favorite thing. Sometimes I crave buttered, salted popcorn, butter and salt being two of the universe's most wonderful things. I've been known to have cereal with milk: there's something stomach-correcting and mood-lulling about it. I also love a simple sandwich of avocado, cheese, pepper and maybe a dab of mayo on toasted bread.
Disclosure: Arthur Bovino was assistant to Frank Bruni and the Dining Section of The New York Times in 2006.