Last November, The New York Times appointed its Dining editor Pete Wells as restaurant critic, replacing Sam Sifton, who after two years, took over as national desk editor. No one, the paper noted in a memo, could be better prepared or respected for his writing, knowledge of food and restaurants, and commitment to The Times. So, six months in, what’s the takeaway? What patterns can be divined from Wells’ reviews? How do his first six months stack up against those of his two predecessors’?
It’s an interesting question given the memo’s citation of Wells’ knowledge of the Dining section, noting a memo he’d written about how its critics have operated since 1963, when Craig Claiborne established its review column. It’s one that took time to discover answers to. Six months. For Frank Bruni (June 9 to Dec. 8, 2004), Sam Sifton (Oct. 14, 2009 to April 14, 2010), and Pete Wells (Jan. 3 to July 3, 2012) that meant reviews of 27 restaurants each.
The critics were even on one count: reviews by borough. No surprise. Still, with 25 of his reviews in Manhattan, Wells has been more likely than Sifton (23 restaurants) and Bruni (22) to review restaurants there. At this point, Sifton and Bruni had reviewed restaurants in both Brooklyn (three each) and Queens (one each).
Bruni, the most adventurous, reviewed Blue Hill at Stone Barns as far out of the city as Westchester. You could argue that Dan Barber’s restaurant was a special case. Though Mario Batali’s Tarry Lodge restaurants in Port Chester and Westport could merit similar attention, reviews beyond The Times’ regional sections. If Bruni’s authority stretched that far, why not? Do his outerborough roots (the Rhode Island native calls Brooklyn home) inspire focus on Manhattan? Who knows. But his outerborough reviews include two Brooklyn restaurants.
Speaking of Manhattan, which parts of it were critics most likely to be found in during their first six months? Wells spent the most time downtown. He and Bruni were more than twice as likely as Sifton to eat there. On the other hand, Sifton was almost a third more likely to review in Midtown as Wells, and three times more likely to dine in a restaurant there as Bruni. And while Wells ventured uptown once, Bruni and Sifton braved nosebleeds at least three times as much.
The critics’ most popular neighborhoods during their first six months? Bruni was most likely to be found in the West Village followed by Midtown West or TriBeCa. Sifton most frequented Midtown West, followed by Midtown East or the West Village. Wells seemed to spend his time more diversely, but was most likely to be spotted in the West Village and the Flatiron, or Midtown West and the East Village.
The three critics reviewed the same number of restaurants, but Wells’ 50 stars in six months makes him the most generous out of the gate. That’s three more stars than Bruni, and 14 more than Sifton. That generosity was also mirrored in how the new critic distributed stars. Wells bestowed two goose-eggs, seven one-spots, 15 two-fers, three three-star reviews, and reaffirmed one restaurant, Le Bernardin’s, four-star status. The three three-star reviews were on par with Bruni (4) and Sifton (3). But Sifton was more than twice as likely as Wells and five times as likely as Bruni to drop a big fat zero. Both Sifton and Bruni were almost twice as likely as Wells to give a restaurant one star.
Most notably, Wells has been the czar of the two-star review. More than half of the restaurants he has reviewed have gotten two stars. That’s nearly twice as many as Sifton awarded and a third more than Bruni. Does Wells just like restaurants more than Bruni and Sifton? Were their standards higher? Or are the restaurants being reviewed now just consistently better? It’s up for debate. Numbers less so. Wells averaged just points lower than his favorite two-star rating with a 1.8 star average. Bruni’s average through his first six months was 1.7 stars. Sifton was stingiest, giving restaurants on average just 1.3 stars.
What does it mean?
Well, it's worth noting what reading the critics' reviews and analyzing these numbers doesn't reveal: the number of restaurants that a critic doesn't even end up reviewing. And Bruni and Sifton ended in opposite directions from their average star ratings during the first six months. Still, at the end of their tenures, neither ended up that far away from where they began — 0.1 stars away in fact. After a little more than five years and some 264 reviews, Bruni’s average star rating edged lower, ending at a 1.6 per review. And after Sifton’s two-year, 100-review tenure, his average star rating was 1.4. By that logic, each week it’s fair to expect a two-star review from Pete Wells and to figure he’ll end his tenure with a 1.7 or 1.9 average.
What about cuisines? What does it say if a critic spends most of his time reviewing one cuisine? Who does that serve? One could argue that the dining landscape shifts — that cuisines rise and fall. Still, French has been "on the way out" for years — why would a critic spend more time in French restaurants than in Italian or Asian ones? Do cuisines make such drastic moves as to merit these attention shifts?
Comparing Wells’ tendencies with his two predecessors’, you have to believe that either that’s true, or that critics just prefer to review restaurants serving certain cuisines. During Bruni’s first six months, he reviewed European restaurants nearly half the time, followed by Asian, and American. His three most frequently reviewed cuisines were French, Italian, and Modern American. Sifton played favorites, too, reviewing European restaurants about half the time, followed again by Asian, and seafood restaurants. He reviewed Italian restaurants more than a third of the time during his first sixth months, followed by Chinese and French.
You could argue that Wells’ cuisine selection has been more even. During his first six months he reviewed American, Asian, and European restaurants a third of the time. Of the 27 restaurants that Wells reviewed, a whopping eight were Asian. If that seems like an uptick, that’s because it is. At six months, Sifton had reviewed four Asian restaurants, down half from Bruni’s own eight. That’s not to say the restaurants didn’t deserve reviews, but it’s interesting that Wells’ average star rating for them has been… you guessed it, two stars.
But sabermetrics of restaurant reviewing only goes so far, right? What about the soul of the reviews, and what critics accomplished during their first half year? How does that compare?
Bruni began with perhaps one of the most audacious reviews, a three-spot for Mario Batali’s Babbo that it’s largely agreed would have been a four stars except for the music in the dining room. At the end of his first six months, Bruni had reviewed Bouley, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Per Se, and Cru, taking on chefs including David Bouley, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Dan Barber, Thomas Keller, Zak Pelaccio, Joey Campanaro, Suvir Saran, and Michael Psilakis. And in that time he reviewed two restaurants previously reviewed by former critics (Babbo, reviewed by Ruth Reichl, and Indochine, by Bryan Miller).
Sifton’s beginning was also auspicious, if not quite as ambitious in terms of reviewing major chefs of high-profile restaurants. He started with Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen and Bar, followed by Marea, A Voce, SD26, The Breslin, Maialino, Motorino, Strip House, Colicchio & Sons, and Faustina. That still includes chefs like Michael White, Charlie Palmer, Missy Robbins, April Bloomfield, Tom Colicchio, Scott Conant, and two restaurants by the preceding critic’s biggest adversaries, restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. (Incidentally, a fifth of the restaurants Sifton reviewed had previously been reviewed by Times critics.)
Where Bruni and Sifton began with Batali and Boulud, Wells began with Simpson Wong. He followed that with La Promenade des Anglais, Romera, Parm, Crown, Acme, North End Grill, La Mar Cebicheria Peruana, Le Bernardin (his one restaurant previously reviewed by a critic), Neta, The NoMad, and Pok Pok NY. His first six months focused on restaurants by Daniel Humm, Peter Hoffman, Alex Stupak, Andy Ricker, Mads Refslund, Floyd Cardoz, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, and Eric Ripert, with two restaurants by Danny Meyer, and one by Jeffrey Chodorow.
From that collection, most people interested in New York City’s restaurant scene would probably gather that of the critics, Wells has been less ambitious, a bit more Asian, and a bit kinder than his two predecessors. He’s had a few go-big moments. There were the eyebrow-raising three-star reviews of Il Buco and Kyo Ya, and the review of Manhattan’s Nordic play Acme. But the last, his review of Neta, two Masa protégés’ West Village sushi restaurant, was scooped by his predecessor’s same-day cover story breaking news about the "secret" restaurant in the back of Roberta’s.
Back in March, while explaining The Times’ star system in the wake of Jonathan Gold’s appointment to the Los Angeles Times’ critic position, and that paper’s renouncement of its star system, Pete Wells noted that he’d spent some time "rooting around the office looking for the 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." Maybe someone could just start an Excel spreadsheet?
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.