Last Tuesday, my Twitter feed read like this: tributes to David Bowie, the State of the Union, and the one that beat everything—Pete Wells slaughtered Per Se in the New York Times, downgrading Thomas Keller's Central Park temple from a vaunted four stars to a humiliating two.
If I didn’t already write a book about this exact scenario, I’d be inspired anew. In an age where we discover restaurants on Yelp, Instagram and blogs rather than crusty old media, why such a frenzy? Even people who have no desire to dine at Per Se are weighing in. How come?
We might not look to the New York Times as the final word on a restaurant’s worth, but restaurant reviews matter for other reasons:
· Chefs may be rock stars, but critics are the real idols. When people eat for sport, their idols aren’t really chefs. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who have posted about the #cronut, how many have followed Dominique Ansel's recipe and spent the three days to make it? My guess: next to none.
But critics! Those professional eaters: Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Gail Simmons, Jonathan Gold, Ruth Reichl, Kate Krader. They travel the world, savoring the world's most extraordinary cuisine. Let's be real, though critics insist eating for a living is a tough gig, it sure beats the antiseptic office jobs most of us have. We’re fascinated by critics—their power, their disguises, their company credit card—and, if we’re being honest, we probably want to be them.
· Restaurant happenings are deliciously dynamic and gossipy. In certain cities, among certain circles, restaurant blogs are like sports pages and reservations are courtside seats. We track where chefs are headed, what places are shuttering, the debut of a chicken sandwich/veggie burger/bone broth menu. And when a four-star restaurant is stripped of half its stars, that’s the stuff of scandal.
· Critics are not normal journalists, so it’s easy (and fun) to theorize on their motivations. People treat reviews like literature or Supreme Court rulings, reading between the lines. Does he have an ax to grind? Is she cozy with the chef? Why such spiteful language? Whether he likes it or not, a critic reveals more than the meal in his writing.
A naïf might assume reviewers are objective and fair, that they come to the table with no biases. But what is a review except for a written declaration of bias? There are clear fails (a hair in your soup, a delayed dish), but the rest is pretty subjective. Where's the line between too salty and well-seasoned? Aloof and respectful of your space? “Limp and dispirited" and elegantly draped? The decision comes down to perspective, a plate through the lens of personal experience. After all, one man's bong water is another man's ambrosia.
· There may be more voices, but that doesn’t mean there’s more criticism. Instagrams tend to be fanatical and food porny (like flies, it’s easier to attract “Likes“ with oozing honey rather than vinegar). Yelp has a star system, but there's no standardization. Per Se has 4.5 stars, but so does Cheesecake Factory. For a measured, informed, and trustworthy review, you'll have to look elsewhere.
A critic is like a personal trainer. We might not love them and often they spoil the fun. But sometimes we crave that rigor. Critics—good ones—are immensely knowledgeable and aren't afraid to call out bad form.
· Restaurants are about status. We read reviews to see how the other side lives, to imagine an existence in which we can afford to spend $3,000 on a dinner for four. Maybe you enjoy the absurdity, a la Real Housewives. Or you're incensed by the social injustice. Or perhaps you pin this experience to your “Someday” dream board.
Many of the Times' most iconic reviews touch on wealth and entitlement. Ruth Reichl's dinner as herself and her Midwestern alter ego “Molly“ at Le Cirque. Sam Sifton's takedown of Lavo, where bankers dine as a prelude to clubbing. Pete Wells and his surprising admiration of the anti-Per Se, Señor Frog's.
New York City runs on money and access disguised as art, style, and culture. Prime Hamilton tickets, the latest Mansur Gavriel bag, an 8pm at Polo Bar. It's exhilarating or exhausting, depending on who you ask.
In his book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young recounts a conversation with his boss, Vanity Fair editor and man-about-town Graydon Carter. It's called the “Seven Rooms Theory" and postulates that in cities across the globe there are seven connected rooms, each more exclusive than the last.
"You think you've arrived, doncha?" he said. "I hate to break it to you but you're only in the first room." He paused. "It's not nothing — don't get me wrong — but it's not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn't get any further. After a year or so, maybe longer, you'll discover a secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you're lucky, you'll discover a doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms in total and you're in the first. Doncha forget it."
When we hear that a lofty restaurant like Per Se is “among the worst food deals in New York“, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps the things/meals/jobs/lives we strive for aren't worth the anguish and feelings of inadequacy. For the moment, we can be satisfied with our current room. At least for now.