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Advice for the NYTimes's New Restaurant Critic


oakapple
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Evidently the NYTimes has chosen a new fine dining critic, although we don't know his or her identity as yet. It's not unlikely that the new critic browses eGullet at times. Perhaps s/he is doing so right now--I know that Amanda Hesser has been here. So, what advice would you give?

Take it as given that the new critic will write informed, perceptive, relevant reviews, and that his or her sensibilities will be broadly consistent with what you'd expect of someone sitting in that job. Not that I can guarantee he or she will be, only that we must assume so unless proven otherwise.

Still, there are questions to be answered, and perhaps opportunities to reshape one of the most influential positions in the industry:

1) How often should restaurants be re-reviewed? There are just five 4-star restaurants according to the Times, and some of them haven't had a review for many years. There's a tier of 3-star restaurants aspiring to 4-stars, including some who've had 4 stars in the past. How often should they be re-reviewed? Fat Guy pointed out recently that Ruth Reichl gave 3 stars to some awfully odd choices, and these have never had a second review. Even an award of 3 stars puts a restaurant in rarefied company. Should the Times should confirm occasionally that this exalted status is still warranted?

2) And what of restaurants that have been slapped recently, like Union Pacific, Montrachet, or Asiate? The first two were stripped of a third star by interim critics. Asiate evidently stumbled out of the gate, but clearly has much higher aspirations than the one star La Hesser gave it. When does Asiate get a second look?

3) The Times publishes only 52 rated reviews a year, and some of these are re-reviews. However, the pace of new restaurant openings in New York has picked up considerably in recent months. This trend may not last, but for now just one review a week isn't enough to keep up. Should the Times review restaurants at its traditional pace, or should it try to find a way to review more restaurants? I am assuming that whatever is done must fit into economic realities. The Times can't afford a second fine dining critic, so printing more full reviews must imply spending less time at some of the restaurants that are reviewed.

4) Is the "fine dining" and "$25 and under" distinction still relevant? Eric Asimov's column has had the latter name for many years now. The reality is that he reviews many places where you'd be hard pressed to eat for under $25 if you order a three-course meal, and certainly not if you order wine and drinks. A lot of restaurants could really fit in either reviewer's territory.

5) Is a single rating (Satisfactory, or 1 to 4 stars) still the right system? The much-maligned Zagat rates Service, Decor, and Food separately. Although the Zagat ratings themselves are problematic, the idea of distinguishing these three categories isn't a bad one. You can conceive of 4-star food and 2-star decor.

If Zagat is too down-market for you, another example is the Guide Michelin in Europe, which has a separate rating for "luxuriousness." This is a way of expressing what the restaurant is striving to do, and then the stars represent a critical assessment of how well they've in fact achieved it.

6) Indeed, the Times's own description of the paper's rating system isn't reflective of the true facts. It says, "Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration." But the fact is, with rare exceptions, only very pricey places reach 3 or 4 stars. This suggests that, while a restaurant might be punished for charging a lot and failing to deliver, few restaurants are ever highly starred for delivering wonderful things at a low price.

7) And lastly, should the paper's bias towards high-end French restaurants be maintained? All of the current 4-star restaurants are French restaurants, and very seldom (ever?) has any other cuisine been so recognized.

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1) How often should restaurants be re-reviewed? There are just five 4-star restaurants according to the Times, and some of them haven't had a review for many years. There's a tier of 3-star restaurants aspiring to 4-stars, including some who've had 4 stars in the past. How often should they be re-reviewed? Fat Guy pointed out recently that Ruth Reichl gave 3 stars to some awfully odd choices, and these have never had a second review. Even an award of 3 stars puts a restaurant in rarefied company. Should the Times should confirm occasionally that this exalted status is still warranted?

I think four-star restaurants should be reviewed every two years as a matter of course. A four-star rating from the Times still commands millions of consumer dollars. The Times should send a clear message to four-star restaurants that they can't rest on their laurels.

There are too many two- and three-star restaurants for the Times to devote an entire review to each one on a regular basis. Still, the reviewer should be checking on these places behind the scenes, and should re-review the ones that have slipped. The non-updating of a two- or three-star review should mean there is still confidence in the restaurant. And the Diner's Journal should be used on occasion to reaffirm a two- or three-star rating (there's no need for a full review if the rating hasn't changed). There should never be a situation where a place like Sammy's Roumanian holds three stars from the days of Mimi Sheraton and was never downgraded.

2) And what of restaurants that have been slapped recently, like Union Pacific, Montrachet, or Asiate? The first two were stripped of a third star by interim critics. Asiate evidently stumbled out of the gate, but clearly has much higher aspirations than the one star La Hesser gave it. When does Asiate get a second look?

In order to restore credibility to the process, the new Times critic should commit to re-reviewing each of those restaurants by 2005.

3) The Times publishes only 52 rated reviews a year, and some of these are re-reviews. However, the pace of new restaurant openings in New York has picked up considerably in recent months. This trend may not last, but for now just one review a week isn't enough to keep up. Should the Times review restaurants at its traditional pace, or should it try to find a way to review more restaurants? I am assuming that whatever is done must fit into economic realities. The Times can't afford a second fine dining critic, so printing more full reviews must imply spending less time at some of the restaurants that are reviewed.

52 reviews, well allocated, can do the job. What has to happen for it to work is for the Diner's Journal to be utilized more often as a way to give non-rated reviews to restaurants that aren't all that interesting.

4) Is the "fine dining" and "$25 and under" distinction still relevant? Eric Asimov's column has had the latter name for many years now. The reality is that he reviews many places where you'd be hard pressed to eat for under $25 if you order a three-course meal, and certainly not if you order wine and drinks. A lot of restaurants could really fit in either reviewer's territory.

I think the column still works, though I'd rather see more true cheap-eats coverage and less middle-market reviewing. Use the Diner's Journal for that.

5) Is a single rating (Satisfactory, or 1 to 4 stars) still the right system? The much-maligned Zagat rates Service, Decor, and Food separately. Although the Zagat ratings themselves are problematic, the idea of distinguishing these three categories isn't a bad one. You can conceive of 4-star food and 2-star decor.

If Zagat is too down-market for you, another example is the Guide Michelin in Europe, which has a separate rating for "luxuriousness." This is a way of expressing what the restaurant is striving to do, and then the stars represent a critical assessment of how well they've in fact achieved it.

The difference between a real restaurant review and what you seen in Zagat and Michelin is that there's actual content in the real review. So I don't see a need for an elaborate multi-category rating system. That can all be explained in the text. The stars are sufficient to convey the broad categories, but they should be better and more consistently applied (and explained).

6) Indeed, the Times's own description of the paper's rating system isn't reflective of the true facts. It says, "Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration." But the fact is, with rare exceptions, only very pricey places reach 3 or 4 stars. This suggests that, while a restaurant might be punished for charging a lot and failing to deliver, few restaurants are ever highly starred for delivering wonderful things at a low price.

Yes, the explanation on offer -- and there is also a different wording that sometimes appears -- is bullshit.

7) And lastly, should the paper's bias towards high-end French restaurants be maintained? All of the current 4-star restaurants are French restaurants, and very seldom (ever?) has any other cuisine been so recognized.

I don't see it as a bias. It's a recognition of the facts. Someone needs to build a four-star non-French restaurant before the Times can award the rating to it. Assuming a broad definition of French that includes Bouley, Jean-Georges, and Per Se, I can't think of an existing non-French restaurant that's a candidate for four stars.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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4) Is the "fine dining" and "$25 and under" distinction still relevant? Eric Asimov's column has had the latter name for many years now. The reality is that he reviews many places where you'd be hard pressed to eat for under $25 if you order a three-course meal, and certainly not if you order wine and drinks. A lot of restaurants could really fit in either reviewer's territory.

I think the column still works, though I'd rather see more true cheap-eats coverage and less middle-market reviewing. Use the Diner's Journal for that.

I strongly agree with you here. It's bothered me to see reviews of restaurants whose main dishes were priced in the high teens and low 20s in the "$25-and-under" column. I may be mistaken, but I sort of think I remember a review of 71 Clinton Fresh Food in that column, which would have been ludicrous.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I would add that, structurally, I think a lot of pressure could be taken off the lead reviewer's schedule if resources like Ed Levine were more explicitly put to use for analysis of restaurants that fit into clearly defined categories. Levine could knock off every Balthazar wannabe brasserie in the city in one big article. I see no reason why he shouldn't also just give each of them zero, one, or two stars. Ditto for steakhouses. Unless a place is doing something particularly interesting, just let Levine do a big steakhouse roundup once a year. Then we'll never have to waste another review on a brasserie or a steakhouse. Which isn't to say it's a waste to rate such restaurants. It's just that there's not enough to say about them to justify a whole review, yet if you deal with them collectively it gives you the opportunity to lay out background information and criteria for comparison: the history of steakhouses in New York, the methods of cooking, the cuts of meat, a discussion of dry aging, criteria for evaluation, the important side dishes and what makes them good, etc. They're much better dealt with collectively.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I hear what you're saying, FG (and it kinda reminds me of the way you used to do that on F-G.com, which I thought was a useful way of doing it), but I worry that when Levine does, say, an ice cream article, he only visits each place once. When stars are at stake, that may not be enough... and I wouldn't want to subject him to 40-or-however-many nights of steakhouse eating he'd have to do for one of those articles.

Still, I think you're definitely on the right track with an idea like that.

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5) Is a single rating (Satisfactory, or 1 to 4 stars) still the right system? The much-maligned Zagat rates Service, Decor, and Food separately. Although the Zagat ratings themselves are problematic, the idea of distinguishing these three categories isn't a bad one. You can conceive of 4-star food and 2-star decor.

Yep. Or a place with 3-star food and 0-star service. I like this idea (though I think there's essentially zero chance the Times will adopt it any time soon), but I agree with Fat Guy that the most important thing is for the Times to indicate more clearly what the star ratings actually stand for. Is there an effective minimum cost for a 4-star meal? Are there places where the tasting menu is 4-star and the prix fixe menu is 1-star? Is it ever possible for a $35/person dinner to be 3-star? Etc. It's impossible to cover all bases in a review, though, and in any case, after a number of reviews from the new critic, we'll have some idea of what the stars mean to him/her.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I hear what you're saying, FG (and it kinda reminds me of the way you used to do that on F-G.com, which I thought was a useful way of doing it), but I worry that when Levine does, say, an ice cream article, he only visits each place once. When stars are at stake, that may not be enough... and I wouldn't want to subject him to 40-or-however-many nights of steakhouse eating he'd have to do for one of those articles.

People like Ed Levine do that, though. It's their job and it yields the best reviews. Eating nothing but steak for forty days and forty nights isn't the most pleasurable way to eat steak (that's why they get paid money to do it), but it's the most informative (that's why it's the best way). And it avoids the wild inconsistency and wasted space of steakhouse reviews in the main review slot.

You don't need multiple visits to dozens of steakhouses. The first cut gets made by research and experience: you can immediately narrow the field to the 15 or so places that are worth reviewing. The Times has virtually no budgetary restrictions, so you go to each meal with 6 people and you do a lot of tasting. Presumably you're eating at these places year-in-year-out so you also have historical/institutional memory to draw upon -- this helps identify whether a visit is possibly atypical. If your visit confirms what you already know, you're done. If the place seems better or worse than you remember, you do 2 visits, which is more than fair (some of the main restaurant reviews are written on 2 visits). If for some reason a stellar performer like Peter Luger is fucked up on 2 visits, you possibly go 2 more times. Likewise, if you're hearing from a lot of your trusted sources that a new place is good, you try it 1 time and if it crosses a certain threshold you do visit number 2 and you include it in the roundup.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Right-o. That announcement was I believe being discussed on eGullet before this thread started. ( http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=40519 ) Nonetheless this topic seemed different enough to keep at the independent/generic level. It would be great if we could leave Mr. Bruni out of it because, perhaps, this topic will still be here when the next critic comes along.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Right-o. That announcement was I believe being discussed on eGullet before this thread started. ( http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=40519 ) Nonetheless this topic seemed different enough to keep at the independent/generic level. It would be great if we could leave Mr. Bruni out of it because, perhaps, this topic will still be here when the next critic comes along.

woops! right-o indeed. so many threads, so little time... :wink:

please return to your original programming...

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5) Is a single rating (Satisfactory, or 1 to 4 stars) still the right system? The much-maligned Zagat rates Service, Decor, and Food separately. Although the Zagat ratings themselves are problematic, the idea of distinguishing these three categories isn't a bad one. You can conceive of 4-star food and 2-star decor.

If Zagat is too down-market for you, another example is the Guide Michelin in Europe, which has a separate rating for "luxuriousness." This is a way of expressing what the restaurant is striving to do, and then the stars represent a critical assessment of how well they've in fact achieved it.

the san francisco chronicle, at the end of each review has the categories listed like this:

overall: three stars

service: two and a half stars

food: three stars

atmposphere: two stars

etc.

it is still subjective, but it gives the reader a chance to see how the critic views the importance of each of these items and how they total up in their opinion. i think this is a relavent way to use the system.

unlike other critics/reviewers in different genres (movies, books, theater, etc.) and specifically with regard to the new york times restaurant critic, people are more likely to take the stars to be rather objective definitions of the quality of the restaurant as opposed to subjective which is in reality what they are. as fat guy says, a three or four star rating means money in the bank to a restaurant owner. sometimes, a no star or a one star review can mean a complete shake-up of the restaurant (firing the chef, etc.) or even the restaurant closing due to lack of business.

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Sometimes, a no star or a one star review can mean a complete shake-up of the restaurant (firing the chef, etc.) or even the restaurant closing due to lack of business.

That's only true in relation to what the restaurant aspires to. If Frank Bruni gives a star to some noodle shop in Chinatown, they'll be singing all the way to the bank, because such places are normally unstarred (and indeed unreviewed). To Asiate, one star was an insult (FatGuy's word, and I agree with him).

Three stars for Spice Market was like winning the World Series, because that's the practical maximum such a place could get. When Alain Ducasse got three stars after it first opened, Ducasse shook the place up and eventually earned the fourth star. For that restaurant, anything less than four was unacceptable.

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A few points in response to your comments, oakapple, and by the way welcome to eGullet and thanks for a thoroughly enjoyable first half-dozen posts.

- A critic should, on the one hand, be aware of what star status a restaurant reasonably aspires to -- this is fairly easy to read based on luxury indicia as well as style of service, prices, types of ingredients, etc. -- and should, on the other hand, not be overly concerned with unreasonable aspirations or with aspirations that clearly have not been realized. I think the reasoning process, even if it's not as automated as this, needs to go something like: I'm about to write a review of a restaurant that wants to be a three star restaurant; is that fundamentally a reasonable aspiration for this restaurant (in other words if all flaws were addressed would it be a three star restaurant, like Asiate) or will it simply never be a three star restaurant on any rational scale (because it's a trendy high-volume club-lounge tapas place like the Spice Market)? Using the reasonable aspiration as a benchmark, my review needs to be conceptualized in those terms. In other words, my review needs to communicate -- however subtly -- that this is, for example, a three-star-potential restaurant currently performing at a two-star level. That's very different from writing a review of a two-star-potential restaurant that's performing at a two-star level. The latter is a review of a place that's succeeding; the former is a review of a place that is failing or has not yet succeeded.

- In terms of the economic damage a restaurant reviewer can do to restaurants (as well as to consumers' wallets), I think William Grimes said it best in his exit interview: you just can't be worry about that (I'm paraphrasing here), so you just do your job without allowing yourself to be paralyzed by worrying about the cooks and servers who are going to lose their jobs if a restaurant goes out of business. At the same time, these days there is very little to worry about. Asiate has not been particularly affected by the one-star review: it's still the hottest ticket in town (more so than Spice Market, as far as I can tell). The Times reviewer is today one of many voices, and in many cases not a particularly important one. It would be nice to see the new reviewer earn back some of that influence, not for its own sake but because it would be acknowledgment that high standards had been restored to the position.

- What exactly do you think constituted the shakeup at Ducasse that led to the award of a fourth star? I think one has to begin with the fundamental realization that the three star review was wrong and that Ducasse knew it. So Ducasse, an intelligent businessman who realized that the American critics were too dumb to get his transplanted Michelin three-star approach, knew he was going to have to earn four stars by pandering. So he did, in the shallowest possible way he could get away with: he got rid of several of the luxury appointments at the restaurant. He reduced the restaurant's level of luxury in order to earn more stars. He pushed for less formal service. The one thing he didn't change was anything about the food, save for the standard evolution any kitchen goes through in its first year of business. In the end, he won William Grimes over with a PDR dinner -- I'm not sure there has ever been a restaurant review before or since that was so heavily influenced by a private party. In any event, a restaurant reviewer should never be in the position of making demands, and he should be very careful even about offering advice. It's not his job to be a restaurant consultant.

- Our culture places a high value on success in business, but what happens on a restaurant's balance sheet can be far more complex than success or failure. Some restaurants are loss leaders for hotel operations or larger restaurant groups that want to have a flagship. Some restaurants have tremendous operating costs on account of unions. The terms of leases differ greatly, thus affecting the need for certain pricing structures. There is, undeniably, an element of fickleness and dumb luck that comes into play where buzz is concerned. Partners can get divorced. People can die. A reviewer needs to realize that the validity of his reviews is not related to which restaurants prosper and which restaurants fail. Although, when the most educated readers consistently vote against the critics with their wallets, something is wrong.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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You've written an excellent message about how much a restaurant reviewer should care about the impact of a review on a restaurant.

How much should a diner or potential diner care about a review (I have some opinions - but I'm curious to hear what other people think before I state them)? Robyn

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I think it depends on the reviewer, and on the review.

At the apex of Patricia Wells's reviewing career, she was a giant. I think every smart consumer should have cared greatly about her restaurant opinions. I know I planned three trips to France and gave her opinions more deference than those of any other source.

Most current reviewers do not, I think, deserve that kind of caring and deference. But once in awhile a review speaks to me, even if it is written by someone I don't generally listen to. So it's possible to make me care about a specific review, even if I don't care about the reviewer.

In other words, the better the reviewer, and the better the review, the more the reader should care about it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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based on luxury indicia

FG, your attorney-nish is showing. I doubt I've ever used the term 'indicia' except when writing a search warrant!

Dave Valentin

Retired Explosive Detection K9 Handler

"So, what if we've got it all backwards?" asks my son.

"Got what backwards?" I ask.

"What if chicken tastes like rattlesnake?" My son, the Einstein of the family.

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Haha. But I've never written a search warrant -- not that kind of lawyer. I'm just generally a geek.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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But it is attorney-speak....

and you do it so well!

Dave Valentin

Retired Explosive Detection K9 Handler

"So, what if we've got it all backwards?" asks my son.

"Got what backwards?" I ask.

"What if chicken tastes like rattlesnake?" My son, the Einstein of the family.

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Dude, and you wonder why all your search warrants are getting rejected? You gotta have the indicia of something!

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Aside from the fact that Gawker has almost definitely violated the copyright laws by reproducing those photos (one assumes without permission from PBS and HarperCollins), I really don't see how that kind of attempted sabotage is called for. The Times has its system. If you think it's stupid, make the argument -- we've done that here. But don't resort to virtual guerrilla warfare.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Did Gawker have the right to webpost an internal New York Times memo in the first place? Frankly, I didn't consider it official until it was in print in the Times itself.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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