This past Saturday, the present and former restaurant critics of the New York Times sat down together to discuss a wide range of topics including tipping, fast food, bad service, and their optimal dining companions. The TimesTalk was a part of the New York City Wine & Food Festival, an annual gathering of food-TV stars, chefs, and restaurant personalities.
Sounding like the disembodied voice of God, present NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells spoke over a loudspeaker so as not to expose his identity. Wells was joined by past critics Ruth Reichl (1993-1999), WIlliam Grimes (1999-2003), and Sam Sifton (2009-2011). NYT senior editor and director of video content Richard L. Berke moderated the discussion. Below, the best quotes from the panel.
On knowing that you could make or break a restaurant with a review
William Grimes: You just have to tune that frequency out, essentially. When baseball players have 50,000 people watching what they’re doing and they step up to the plate, they’re not thinking about the 50,000 people in the stands. They’re just concentrating on what they’re doing. I don’t think you could write a review if you’re thinking about the dishwasher and what he’s going to do and what his family’s going to do if the restaurant goes under. You would become paralyzed.
Pete Wells: The reality of it is almost every restaurateur looks at tips as a way to make payroll. That’s how they get their employees paid. And, without it, the restaurants wouldn’t function the way they do now. So it’s going to be super hard for restaurants to start doing things differently.
On last meals in NYC
William Grimes: Close to my house is this little bistro called Tournesol, in Long Island City. And I know it will be rock solid and dependable and I know that the duck terrine will be as it always is and there will probably be this nice seared skate with bournoise and caper sauce that will be really good and it will be satisfying.
Ruth Reichl: Masa, if someone else was paying for it. Because I don’t think I can ever go there again on my own dime. It’s like going to a spa or something—it’s more than just food. I have been there when he’s done fugu [pufferfish] and I would love to have his fugu again.
Sam Sifton: If you’re paying, we would start at Le Bernardin, but then maybe we could go to Hunnan Kitchen in Queens and get their barbecued fish, then we could come back and debate which steakhouse to go to. We’d end up at Peter Luger, of course. But we’d drive by Sparks just to see it because of this image we have in our minds of gangsters parked outside. [Moderator: I thought you were going to say Per Se.] I love Per Se. I think it’s fantastic, but it’s not the memory I want to have of New York City because there is a sterility to the mall that you need to pass through to get to Per Se. You have this amazing meal, then walk out and there’s, like, Sephora.
Pete Wells: I’d want a New York pizza, and I’d go to Totonno’s in Coney Island. Then I would get into my kayak and slip off into the ocean.
On the desire to open a restaurant
Sam Sifton: God no, that’s the most insane business in the world. It’s crazy. Most restaurants fail. And besides, I know nothing of business. You know why restaurants succeed and last a long time? Because they’re really good businesses. You know what we don’t write about? Business.
Ruth Reichl: I went from cooking in a restaurant to writing about food, and I’m not going back.
Pete Wells: There’s just no way. No. Not if I’m expected to make money and please people. If I can do it and lose money and make people angry, then I would. It’s crazy, it’s unbelievable what they do. The level of complexity, even running a mediocre restaurant, is really humbling. Just to kind of open up and make it through the night without anyone dying is really impressive. And at very high levels, the places that try to get every detail right and succeed 99% of the time, that’s really an amazing accomplishment.
On sending food back
William Grimes: I’d rather just continue eating it and discover the full dimensions of its badness.
Sam Sifton: I feel the same way. I never send stuff back because there could be the delicious possibility of awfulness at the end of the dish that could make for great prose.
On being an entertainer
William Grimes: You want to grab ’em fast by the lapels, pull ’em in and hold ’em down and don’t let them move until they get to the last sentence.
Pete Wells: What I do every time I sit down is I try not to be too boring.
On budget cuts
Sam Sifton: In order to do it right, and fairly, and well, we need to eat out a lot and we need to not be retrained by budgeting in doing so. As someone who has worked as an editor of the Dining section and as a food critic, I have never been constrained and I doubt that any of us will say that we have been.
Pete Wells: When I was the Dining editor, my budget was cut several times and I had to do what I could to protect the asset. I tried to preserve the dining critic’s budget intact, without touching it. But I had to take money away from other places.
Sam Sifton: I didn’t know that, Pete. I was critic under Pete as editor. Thank you, Pete.
On not caring what their dining companions think about the food
Pete Wells: I sometimes end up with people who are trying to impress me by showing me how critical they can be. And they start finding fault with things that are just not problems. Like, “These salt crystals are really sharp-edged. You could hurt yourself on those.”
On Pete Wells’ one-star Shake Shack review:
Pete Wells: The fries were terrible. But do you know that they’ve changed the fries? [Moderator: This is huge. This is because of you.] Well, it’s because of me and everybody else in the world who thought their fries were terrible.
Moderator: But seriously, are they better, do you like them?
Pete Wells: You know, they taste like potatoes now. They have real logistical problems. I think at the one in Madison Square, the last time I talked to Danny Meyer he said they might—I don’t think he said this was off the record—he said they were exploring excavating underneath their little stand there so they would have room to hand-cut their fries.
On taking their kids to eat fast food
Sam Sifton: My kids are little Brooklyn bohemians—they would sooner die than go into a fast-food place. When we’re on the road we take these long byways to find real food and they’re delighted by that. They’ve grown up in real restaurants. Fast food to them is a slice. And that is a good thing.
Ruth Riechl: I’m married to a man who loves aggressively going to McDonald’s. And he brings it home and waves it in my face. [Moderator: I love that image, that’s hilarious.]
On the optimal dining companion
Ruth Reichl: I like teenagers because they have voracious appetites. And one of the problems when you’re reviewing restaurants—and often, you’re doing two restaurants in a night because you’re behind—is what do you do with all that food? So having people who are big eaters is very good. I also always carry plastic bags in my purse, because you don’t want the waiter to come over and say, you know, why didn’t you eat your food? And especially when you’re going to an awful restaurant. It was a lot of shoving food into plastic bags when no one was looking.
On staying slim
William Grimes: I always eat as much as I want and it’s never an issue. And I don’t work out. So, there.
Ruth Reichl: I eat out lunch and dinner everyday, and sometimes two dinners, and I’ve never been to a gym.
Sam Sifton: So, I think these people are freaks.
Pete Wells: I do try to walk everywhere and I ride my bike when I don’t have a tire. I hate gyms—the inside of a gym is enough to make me want to quit my job. I just can’t stand them. The evidence would suggest I eat more than anybody in the world because I just get bigger and bigger. I’ll go on these no-alcohol diets every so often and it works for me. The day I stop drinking alcohol and I gain weight I’m going to be in real trouble. But right now, it works.
On bad service
Ruth Reichl: I think that my favorite review that I ever wrote was one where we waited and waited, and finally after 45 minutes a hostess came over and said, “oh, I’m so sorry, your waitress just quit. It went from there to a waiter pouring hot sake all over me, trying to mop that up and spilling the entire water pitcher onto the table. Completely messing everything up. And the final indignity was when we left they couldn’t find my coat. I thought oh, this is so fantastic and I wrote everything that happened and they ended up taking out a full page on the back of the dining section, reprinting the entire review, and writing please come back. It was just a given oh, this is so great, this is wonderful copy.
On how the dining experience has changed after stepping down as the Times’ restaurant critic
Sam Sifton: Now we can be regulars. This is the great joy of being a New Yorker, is it not? That you can be a regular in a restaurant—“Hello, nice to see you, same drink, are you going to have the same dish that you always have and always love?” Yes. Yes I am. That freedom—the freedom to not endlessly explore the new, the freedom to not look at the new restaurant critically but to go to the old restaurant lovingly—that’s a tremendous joy in my post-career life.
William Grimes: It hurts when you reach for your wallet, though.