Restaurant Critics 101: Ruth Reichl

Last week, we covered Frank Bruni, the New York Times restaurant critic from 2004 - 2009. Today, we’ll cover Ruth Reichl, the Times’ critic from 1993-1999.

Reichl has written many memoirs about her life in food, but her book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise focuses squarely on her time as a reviewer. Here are some insider tidbits, many of which found their way in my book somehow:

  1. As a woman who used to dumpster-dive in Berkeley, Ruth made it a point to represent all types of people (rich, poor, beautiful, plain), and all types of restaurants (ethnic places that veered from the white tablecloth French, Italian, and Continental cuisine of the day).

  2. While Frank Bruni shied away from disguises because they made him look and feel silly, Ruth plunged into them, with wigs, makeup, wardrobe, manicures and entire personalities and backstories. Her first disguise was Molly, a Midwestern woman who wore an old but well-preserved Armani suit. Her mother’s friend Claudia, an acting coach, put it this way: “If you are intent on deception, you must go all the way; the restaurant critic of the New York Times can not afford to look foolish.”

  3. One of Ruth’s most famous reviews originally had two parts: one, a 4-star review when dining with her boss and his aristocratic wife, and another 1-star review when she dined as Molly. The Le Cirque review was eventually unified into one article with a 3-star rating. Ruth wavered between 2 and 3, but as her editor said, “It doesn’t really matter. The only thing that people will care about is that you’re taking the fourth star away.”

  4. Restaurants offer a bounty (~$500) to anyone who spots the New York Times critic.

  5. Though New York Times dining critics are anonymous, they wield immense power and social clout -- though is it for a limited time? You are, in a sense, a king or queen of New York.  Celebrities and visiting dignitaries call for restaurant recommendations. But once you leave the post, the offers fall off. As Carol Shaw, Ruth’s friend and the secretary of the Living desk said, “You’re just a byline. Take a good look. The minute you give up the job, you become a nobody.” (Note: Likely not really the case. Look at Ruth herself, Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton… Mimi Sheraton! -- all with vibrant, dynamic careers -- and they can show their faces now.)

  6. Ruth bought her designer disguises at various consignment stores, including Michael’s Resale, a shop on the UWS that only accepts garments that are less than two years old (unless it’s Chanel, Pucci or Hermès).

  7. Though clothes started as a way to dine unnoticed, Reichl began to see how clothes could transform how you look at the world -- and how the world sees you.

  8. Ruth often tussled with the idea of being a food critic. At one time, she was a cook and healthy-eating advocate, someone who always got the worst table and paid in cash because she didn’t have a credit card. At the New York Times was she just telling rich people where to eat and feel coddled? But in a column titled, “Why I Disapprove of What I Do”, she says:

Going out to eat used to be like going to the opera; today, it is more like going to the movies.
And so everyone has become a critic. I couldn't be happier. The more people pay attention to what and how they eat, the more attuned they become to their own senses and the world around them.

Ruth wrote that almost ten years ago… and those statements are truer than ever.