[UPDATED] Restaurant critics recall death threats, funeral wreaths from chefs and reviews that got readers talking

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.

Their responses:

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.

DEVRA FIRST, Boston Globe
I’ve had the usual threatening messages on my home voicemail and calls from restaurateurs who screamed at me for 45 minutes straight, but nothing out of the ordinary.

TOM SIETSEMA, Washington Post
Probably my most negative review of a major chef’s work was the 2010 critique I wrote of a highly anticipated seafood concept from Washington chef Robert Wiedmaier called Mussel Bar in Bethesda.

I gave the bivalve-themed restaurant a 1/2 star, or poor rating, based on the mess I encountered during three visits. The place specialized in mussels and fries but the kitchen was overcooking the seafood and buying packaged fries — and this, from a chef with Belgian roots! The service was poor, there was a lot of up-selling going on — the restaurant tasted like the chef was just trying to make a quick buck, and I said so when I wrote Mussel Bar suggested a giant ATM with a dishwasher.

Wiedmaier has not talked to me since.

I heard from a lot of readers (and even a few chefs) who agreed with me, but I also got dinged online for being too harsh. Someone who claimed to know the chef said — anonymously and via email — the restaurant had a (security) tape of a video of me arguing with one of my dining companions and walking off without paying one dinner. Obviously, I paid for everything I ate every visit. But the email exchange was threatening in tone.

I had no agenda going in. I had praised Wiedmaier’s work in the past (notably at Marcel’s, his upscale French restaurant in DC) and looked forward to writing about something good in Bethesda, a suburb known for its wealth but not quality places to eat. But the reality was grim.

In 2006, I wrote a no-star review of a French bistro called Le Pigalle (since closed). It didn’t have a brand chef behind it, however. The headline read: At Least the Water is Cold.

PHIL VETTEL, Chicago Tribune
Scathing reviews are fun reads and they’re very easy to write when you know how, but I’m rarely comfortable bringing the hammer down, as it were, unless it’s an operation big enough to deserve it. Getting snarky about a Rich Melman restaurant is no problem, but cracking wise on a mom-and-pop just comes off mean. And I know that a really scathing review often closes the place.

Wells’ review was pretty funny. Even if Fieri is pretty low-hanging fruit as targets go, but he’s absolutely fair game. It’s almost like reviewing the Jekyll & Hyde Club, except, unlike Fieri, Jekyll & Hyde isn’t claiming any foodie cred.

There was a restaurant, Ballo, that I gave an uncomplimentary review. The owner, Alex Dana, had about 6 other restaurants at the time (he has more now), so I thought it was more than fair to rip this effort. Mr. Dana didn’t agree, and left a threatening voicemail on my phone; the tag line, in particular, infuriated him. I called him back, pointed out that I’d named his steakhouse’s burger the Best Burger in Chicago a year ago, and if he wanted to injure me after the Ballo review, he owed me flowers for the burger piece. He joked that the flowers would be arriving in the form of a funeral wreath. Hey, flowers are flowers.

Anyway, this is what I wrote. Within a year, the place was reconcepted (same owner) into a more casual spot featuring, among other things, the burger “Phil Vettel rated #1.”

LESLIE BRENNER, Dallas Morning News
When I first started at the Dallas Morning News in 2009, my editors asked if I’d consider reviewing the Old Warsaw, a long-established continental restaurant that my predecessor, Bill Addison, apparently showed no interest in critiquing.

Just the name of the place was enough for me — I jumped, actually expecting to love the place. “The Old Warsaw. It conjured visions of roast duck and spaetzle and violins, of damask and crystal and deep, brocaded banquettes,” was my lede. I love old-fashioned dining rooms and old-school middle Europe cuisine. Instead I got foie-less foie gras, green beans that tasted frozen, gloppy baked oysters and a waiter who told me the game birds were so dry they needed a very sweet sauce to rescue them, then insisted Chateauneuf-du-pape was in Burgundy. He cracked up when I asked him if there was someone who knew the wine list, proclaiming, “No one knows the wine list better than me!”. A violinist with a tin ear, dusty decor, a dried out soufflée — you get the picture. One star, which in this town was a scandal. || Read her review.

PROVIDENCE CICERO, Seattle Times
I think Pete Wells wrote a brilliant piece of satire and the funniest restaurant review I’ve ever read, which doesn’t surprise me because he has always been a food and wine writer who rises above the genre.

I’ve been reviewing restaurants and awarding stars since 1997. I try to be fair and balanced in my assessments and constructive in my criticism, but I also want to produce a good piece of writing. Reviewers often joke that the bad reviews write themselves and there’s some truth to that. The trick is to be funny without being mean.

I can recall two reviews I wrote that might be called scathing. Reviewing a fancy restaurant on the top floor of a downtown hotel, I used the Letterman Top Ten List as the format — more original then than it would be now. That review ended with this: “The Number One reason to go to Prego is…it’s your job.” Another was a review of a terrible suburban fondue restaurant. Here are excerpts:

The Boiling Point in Woodinville serves fondue the way Denny’s serves breakfast—fast and with few frills. And it may have been at Denny’s that our waitress learned the neat trick of carrying a bottle in her front apron pocket while balancing a full tray in her hands—only there it would have been ketchup, not wine….

The raw ingredients for the entrée—top sirloin, chicken, salmon, shrimp and assorted vegetables—come to the table as they might come to your stove at home, heaped in small white bowls… Replenishing the bubbling chicken broth in our pot from a Pyrex measuring cup, our waitress is coy about divulging the “secret ingredients” in the various cooking mediums, but I’m guessing the chicken, beef and vegetable broths come straight from a can and get a shake or two of garlic powder on the way to the table. It’s certain the cheesecake and ladyfingers came straight from the freezer; they were still frozen.

As for ambiance, once the Christmas decorations are put away The Boiling Point will be left with the smell of cooking oil and the screech of The Beach Boys on what sounds like a transistor radio blaring from the next room. Help me Rhonda, indeed.

DARA MOSKOWITZ GRUMDAHL, Mpls.St.Paul magazine

Actually, it was a negative review which really launched my career, and turned me from a feature writer hanging out in the restaurant-critic slot waiting for something better to open up. Here’s the link.

As to comments on Pete Wells’ review: Good for him, it is the literal point of criticism to create conversation and dialog about the subject at hand, to mangle George Orwell, everything else is just public relations. If everything is super-fantastic awesome, nothing is.

MICHAEL RUSSELL, The Oregonian
I’m lucky enough to be the critic at Portland’s daily, The Oregonian, at a time when the national food-writing spotlight is firmly focused, like Sauron’s eye, on our city’s unique combination of independent pop-ups, food carts and restaurants. I choose what I review and when I review it, which means there’s usually something great — recently Indian street food, ambitious wine bar fare, wonderfully unusual tacos — on the menu.

But sometimes you get a clunker. And when it’s a high-profile clunker, you’re obligated to review it.

That happened in September, when I reviewed a well-publicized new sushi restaurant run by a local hamburger-chain owner. After several lackluster visits, one of which began with the chef telling us he was “completely hung over,” I filed this “C-” review (probably equivalent to a zero-star but “fair” Times review), writing that the restaurant’s fast-food philosophy “devalues the sushi experience and short-changes customers along the way.” (I was also careful to include things I thought the restaurant was doing well.)

No review I’ve written has gotten as large of a response, mostly in the form of “right-on” emails from those short-changed diners, and in “great job” notes from people who enjoy reading negative reviews the same way rubberneckers enjoy staring at car wrecks (and, be honest, that’s most of us).

The typical criticism of a critic, usually levied by the restaurant owner or his or her friends or fans, is that the reviewer “has an agenda.” Fieri argued as much about the Times review. But that’s rarely the case. Pete Wells, for example, did a great job of two things required of a critic — he presented evidence backing up his thesis (if anything, he had too much), and he judged the restaurant based on its own ambitions.

A critic wouldn’t review a hotdog stand the same way he or she would Le Bernardin. But Wells goes beyond that, judging Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar against Fieri’s own brand — that of America’s defender of the kind of simple, honest, good food looked down on by the New York hoi polloi. Yet instead of building a restaurant that respected that laudable point of view, Fieri dumped a 500-seat tourist shakedown apparatus in the middle of Times Square.

He had it coming.

MICHAEL BAUER, San Francisco Chronicle
I think the one that I heard the most about was Morton’s; I got dozens of emails from readers, though I don’t recall that I heard anything directly from the restaurant.

In most cases if a restaurant is really bad I won’t review it, unless of course it has so much publicity it can’t be ignored. I think Guy’s restaurant would fit into that. I know Pete and respect what he does; I think he wrote it as he saw it.

KATHARINE SHILCUTT, Houston Press
My two most incendiary restaurant reviews have both been of Tex-Mex joints. You simply don’t mess with Tex-Mex in Houston. The first was of a place called Vida Sexy Tex-Mex, which has since closed. It was essentially an adults-only restaurant that looked like a swinger’s club (or how I imagine one to look) which also happened to serve really awful food.

Interestingly, the owner — Trey Melcher — never responded to me personally but did leave a very considered and reasonable response to the review in the comments section. This is more than I expected, given the lackadaisical attitude the ownership seemed to have towards running a restaurant.

The second was Maggie Rita’s, a chain owned by comedian Carlos Mencia that rode into town and took over one of the city’s most beloved and long-lasting restaurant chains — the homegrown Ninfa’s, started by Mama Ninfa Laurenzo many decades ago — and utterly destroyed it.

Nary a response from Carlos Mencia, but the review itself went viral — making it onto Reddit, Fark, etc. I underestimated the amount of disdain that people nationwide have for Mencia; my only issue with the guy was his larking around with one of our holy trinity food groups (the other two, of course, being barbecue and burgers).

As far as the Pete Wells review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant in Times Square goes, I’ll say this: I found the review itself to be exceptionally well-written. It displayed a terrific sense of humor that I thought got the point across without being unnecessarily spiteful, mean or ugly. I was sort of surprised by the number of people who thought Wells either (1) had it in for Fieri or (2) shouldn’t have been reviewing a place like Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in the first place. I didn’t see it as a hit piece at all. Instead, I saw it as Wells fuming — rather rightly — that a place such as this should be one of the centerpieces at one of New York’s great tourist attractions (for better or worse). Folks only have a few days in NYC when they come to visit, and I’d be pretty horrified too if tourists to my city were eating this sort of pablum instead of exploring all the amazing restaurants, bistros, cafes, markets, etc. that the city holds.

That said, horrifying food exists everywhere. And horrifying food, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily enough to merit a full-blown review in the Times. For that reason, I believe that Joshua David Stein at the NY Observer wrote a far better review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar.

I couldn’t agree with Stein more when he writes: “Mr. Fieri’s most egregious transgression isn’t what he puts into his fellow citizens’ stomachs, it’s how the cynical slop interfaces with what he puts into their minds. [...] But what makes Mr. Fieri truly reprehensible is that he’s exploited a mythology that appeals to the downtrodden to deliver unto them cholesterol and all its long-tail misery. By advocating an America in which the symbols of our salvation—manufacturing (embodied in those classic cars), rock ’n’ roll (the old guitars), and a return to the rough-hewn America of yore (the vintage flags, the faux taxidermy mounts)—becomes linked inseparably with a place in which pepperoni and mozzarella deserve to be rolled in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried, where the quantity of sauce on a fry demands even more frying, where chicken alfredo has many thousands of calories, Guy Fieri is using patriotism as a Trojan Horse for his infectious and insidious garbage.”

To me, this is Fieri’s real sin. There’s nothing American about Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension or choking down Lipitor every morning. Steins’ indictment that guys like Guy have promoted the idea that being a red-blooded American means eating yourself to death at age 57 isn’t far off base, in my opinion. On the other hand, I am actually a fan of the Fieri’s show, which highlights unique and interesting small businesses in towns across the country that wouldn’t necessarily receive national attention otherwise. So I’m not in the anti-Guy Fieri camp by any means. I just think that — like pretty much everyone else in the history of ever — the man has made some poor decisions, and I’m definitely not a fan of the type of food he’s promoting at his Times Square restaurant. Wells’ review was funny and enjoyable to read, but didn’t quite get around to addressing what I feel is the biggest issue with places like Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. Stein’s review did.

EDMUND TIJERINA, San Antonio Express-News
We haven’t had a culinary trainwreck along the lines of Guy Fieri, but I would be remiss if I didn’t call out one.

I have written a few pretty negative reviews but they didn’t nearly as much reaction as a tepid review I gave to a place that was featured — wouldn’t you know — in “Diners Drive-Ins and Dives.”

It was the Tip Top Café, and I tried to be gentle in pointing out that the actual food was not that special and that stirred up a lot of phone calls and emails. Most of them were along the lines of “who the [insert expletive here] do you think you are?” The owners never said anything to me, but they have savvy local PR company and they have been around long enough to know any hubbub I caused would quickly die down anyway.

My sense is that what readers didn’t like in my less-than-effusive praise for Tip Top was a feeling that I was looking down on their tastes, and by extension, at them. Nobody wants to be the object of condescension and when it comes to longtime favorite restaurants, criticism can feel personal.

I think Pete Wells tapped into that. A lot of people love Guy Fieri and his regular-guy persona, and felt the epic takedown was a shot at their own tastes. The review made a specific point of contrasting Guy’s professed love of simple American food with the sloppy conception and execution at his restaurant, but that basic point got lost in all the fuss over the harshness of the review. Besides, it’s easier to come up with a storyline of Pete Wells v Guy Fieri.

HANNA RASKIN, Seattle Weekly
I’ve had very little blowback from readers regarding negative reviews, mostly because the few restaurants I’ve slammed are wildly expensive, so my pans played right into the common consumer perception that restaurants are out to gouge the public. But I’ve heard plenty from restaurant owners, even when my reviews were relatively innocuous: Restaurateurs with hurt feelings have e-mailed death threats and tried to sell my editors on elaborate conspiracy theories. But my favorite follow-up came from the owner of a seafood restaurant I’d taken to task for ignoring the basic principles of responsible sourcing: He offered to fly me to rural Alaska “in a very small plane” to check out his fishing operations. I declined.

RICHARD GORELICK, Baltimore Sun
I tell readers, and myself, that I judge a restaurant based on how it sets and meets expectations. I thought that Wells made it clear in his review that there was, potentially, a version of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar that would have been reviewed favorably.

I tried to do the same when I reviewed the Bubba Gump’s that opened last summer in a prominent Inner Harbor location. I don’t feel the need to publish reviews of random mediocre restaurants, but some restaurants have to be reviewed. If Guy’s Kitchen opened in Baltimore, I’d review it, of course.

I get brushback from restaurant owners. I’ve been banned from restaurants FOR LIFE. One restaurant owner saw me standing on the corner in front of his restaurant, came outside to confront me, shoved me and pursued me for a block or two. Legally, he got in my face.

The other thing I tell readers, and myself, is that a restaurant is not a plasma bank.

SCOTT JOSEPH, former Orlando Sentinel critic
While reviewing for the Orlando Sentinel (I now review at scottjosephorlando.com), I wrote a critique of a French restaurant that did just about everything wrong. I singled out a fish entree as particularly poorly done, and the following week I found a rather large fish dumped in my driveway. It definitely had tones of “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”

Previous to that, the creepiest thing that occurred was learning that a restaurateur had hired a private investigator to follow me around, primarily to take photos of me to post at his host stand so that I could be spotted when I came in. The irony is that the review of that restaurant, which was indeed one of the more negative ones I’ve written in my 25 years as a critic, was written two weeks before the private investigator was hired. I wasn’t so disturbed by the woman who left a phone message saying she wished I was dead after I gave a negative review of her restaurant on International Drive (Orlando’s version of Times Square, at least in quality of restaurants) — at least we had a name to give to the police.


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