After Pete Wells skewered Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in the New York Times last week, I asked several restaurant critics what they thought of the review — “He didn’t just shoot a fish in a barrel, he swallowed the frosted-hair whale whole,” one wrote — and to recall their reviews that got readers talking and chefs angry.
JONATHAN GOLD, Los Angeles Times
I’ve written reviews that have closed restaurants, and I’ve written reviews that have cost me friends. In the 1980s, I occasionally wrote reviews of the school, later perfected by A.A. Gill in London, that confused nastiness with sport. (I used the word mucilagenous rather too often in those days.)
The review that excited the most comment, though, was probably a fairly innocuous piece on the Olive Garden I wrote a couple of years ago: I had invited my photographer to the restaurant as an April Fool’s prank – I was going to intercept her and take her to a steakhouse a few blocks away – but showed up a few minutes late. She had already started in on the breadsticks, and we ended up staying for the entire meal. I really, really wanted to like it, mostly because a positive review would have been contrarian in a delightful way, but the lunch was even worse than I had feared.
The piece was more a narrative than an actual review, a story of a practical joke gone awry, but the reaction was pretty much the same as the reaction to Pete’s piece, although on a smaller scale: nasty letters; accusations of elitism; faux-populist radio blasts; blog frenzy, etc. (No Letterman Top 10 list, though – I would have enjoyed that.) The piece is still one of the first things people bring up when they meet me for the first time. And the intimations of snobbery still strike me as odd – at the Weekly, I tended to write about street food and its cousins. Olive Garden may have been one one of the more expensive restaurants I covered that year.
As for Pete: Was it entertaining? Was it accurate? Was it entertaining? Did it get everybody talking? Pete did okay.
In sheer dollars, Fieri’s place was probably the biggest opening in NYC this season. Critics review things like Adam Sandler movies all the time; why should restaurant critics be limited to highbrow dining rooms? And Fieri won’t lose a single customer.
BILL DALEY, Chicago Tribune
I was never threatened covering the cops beat nor while reporting on a big Mafia trial, but I was threatened – twice – for writing negative reviews of two restaurants. Shows where the passion is, I guess.
CRAIG LABAN, Philadelphia Inquirer
Funny how this review in particular has become such a “moment” for all resto-critics to show off their most indelibly deep teeth marks. I’d only been discussing the Fieri review with readers via Twitter for a few minutes when requests came in to dust off several of what they called their favorite slams.
My colleague, Michael Klein, posted this item earlier today with links to three of my reviews, including a review of Old Original Bookbinder’s in ’97 that I believe really set a tone, and a high-standard, for what my tenure at the Inquirer was going to be about — that the big names were expected to deliver…
I would add to that my February review of Georges Perrier’s Le Bec Fin, which downgraded the 40-year-plus institution from 4 to 2 “Liberty bells” and, as it turned out, presaged the sad end of this great landmark. Coincidentally (completely, I think) Perrier finally decided to sell the restaurant one week later. Just a stylistic note — this review happens to have also been written as an open question to the owner: “Dear Georges Perrier: What the Bec has happened?!”
That said, the brilliance of the Fieri review, from a writer’s point of view, is how far Pete Wells took that empty chair question motif…. he went all the way, every question more hilarious than the next. And it was powerful reading, both in its humor and message of accountability (or lack thereof). I understand the backlash that Fieri might have been too easy a target for the NYT. But I disagree. True, no one expects a celebrity restaurant in Times Square to be any good. But Fieri is more than just a big name chef. He’s become a cultural icon whose influence on the American pop dialogue (let alone its dining scene) is enormous. People travel the country in his footsteps to eat what he preaches. And they circle back in droves every time his show comes on in reruns (which is often.) But does he practice what he preaches in his own restaurants? Certainly, he’s been held accountable there. Such an outsized personality demanded an outsized review. And Pete Wells didn’t just shoot a fish in a barrel, he swallowed the frosted-hair whale whole./THE CRITICS’ STORIES CONTINUE. Read More