The New York Times' Pete Wells Tries to Prove Restaurant Critics Still Matter in the Internet Age

After his three-star takedown of Daniel, The Times dining critic gets a little d

"As for 'dynamic love affair,' you are going to have to ask Google," Pete Wells noted in his review of ABC Cocina. "I have absolutely no idea."

A week after dropping Daniel Boulud’s flagship Daniel from four stars to three, The New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells seems to be feeling sensitive. How else to interpret his review of Jean-Georges and Dan Kluger’s ABC Cocina, which he launched with the tweet:

Wasn't this question really up for debate because Wells' three-star review of Daniel wasn’t widely-respected? The previous review did mean, as blogger Lockhart Steele tweeted, that Wells put Il Buco and Daniel on the same footing. Incidentally, on that note, Wells would likely refer critics to his 2012 memo on the since discontinued Diner's Journal blog explaining The Times' star system, and the frustration and insanity review readers will face if they read hoping reviews will "organize the entire New York City restaurant scene into an objective and verifiable hierarchy of good, better and best. (Still waiting on the internal memo that explains why of all Times blogs that should be discontinued, one that shouldn't have been killed was.)
Sure, as The Washington Post's Tim Carman noted, "Time and Chicago Mag may have enjoyed arguing over the relative merits of professional restaurant critics vs. wannabe reviewers who post opinions on Yelp, Urbanspoon, OpenTable and the like." But does anyone really question the role of the professional reviewer? [Incidentally, OpenTable just acquired Urbanspoon's booking system.]
And are chefs, who frequently note that their customers eat at restaurants more than they do, and who can dance around answering a question about a city's best restaurants just as adroitly or ineffectively as any excellent or foot-in-mouth politician when asked about their latest scandal, really going to "beat the crowd"?
It wasn’t just the tweet announcing the ABC Cocina review that seemed defensive. The review dived right in, using the nonsense-speak on ABC Cocina’s website as a straw man, as though every other restaurant website features truisms that Yelpers and TripAdvisor veterans refer to before writing reviews."If, on the other hand, you found a few passages somewhat hazy," Wells noted, as if the information that restaurants give about themselves on their websites are determining factors for how people decide to visit restaurants and understand them, "I'll be happy to do my job." Huh?
The strange, defensive introduction didn’t get much attention from a distracted food media. Most were busy questioning whether the quintessentially classy Thomas Keller (or speculated intern or flak tweeting for him) had been trying to insult peer Daniel Boulud with his congratulatory tweet after The Times review ("3 well deserved stars for my dear friend @DanielBoulud "Every taste seems to transport you to another world"). The bait was pretty much left on the hook. Few seemed interested in trying to make sense of Wells' advice to New York’s devoted restaurant seekers to Google something a PR person very well may have written for ABC Cocina to begin with.
And taking the restaurant to task for ridiculousness like calling themselves a "modern global exchange” ("what we critics like to call a “restaurant,” noted Wells), well, sure, okay. But what are we saying?  Restaurants shouldn't be able to market themselves on their own websites even though they’re businesses. That's marketing. Everyone does it. Why was Wells being so defensive? Why defend a job that doesn’t require defending (just carrying it out well)?
Now, if Wells would have written a Diner's Journal or Critic's Notebook piece about bad restaurant websites with all the effort that went into crafting a description about ABC Cocina's vegetables with brown rice ("I expected would taste like a tea made by steeping the yellowed pages of the 'Moosewood Cookbook' in warm kombucha and straining it through Pigpen’s bandanna"), well, that could have been a good read.
Instead, we're left knowing that Wells hates the lights and a kicker ("As for 'dynamic love affair,' you are going to have to ask Google. I have absolutely no idea."), that lets you know he has search engine rage. What will Google tell you anyway? Google refers you to the ABC Cocina website and... The New York Times’ review. You get the restaurant website nonsense expectable from the former, but not what you’d expect from a Times critic with the space and the platform to review any restaurant in the latter.
Do restaurant critics still matter in the “Internet age,” asks Wells? Of course! And The New York Times is a part of that age too! And so are you, Pete Wells! You’re also online! But the Internet age also needs a critic who doesn’t pretend its readers need a critic because they take restaurant websites at face value, or because googling their impenetrable restaurant-website speak reveals little about why you should spend money there.

While publications struggle with the needs and pressures to be both super-local and national, during a period when Google, one of the most dynamic, Internet-related search, cloud computing, software, and online advertising technology companies of the day has gone hyper-local with its acquisition of Zagat, and its move to orient restaurant search into immediately useful, graphic, and visual results, the Internet age needs a restaurant critic now perhaps more than ever — one who matters. Maybe one who is even unafraid of and empowered by it.

Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Read more articles by Arthur, reach him by email, or click here to follow Arthur on Twitter.