On Pete Wells’s Daniel Decoy Stunt, Special Treatment, and Critical Anonymity

Photo: Restaurants in NYC

Photo: Restaurants in NYC

New York Times critic Pete Wells’s decision to strip Daniel of one of its four stars just shy of the restaurant’s twentieth anniversary was bound to send shockwaves through the tiny universe of those who care deeply about this kind of thing. Though Wells spends a fair amount of time noting the shortcomings of the food itself—he memorably accuses the menu of “trying to garnish its way to greatness”—the review’s defining feature is its emphasis on service, and its decidedly unorthodox way of testing it.

In the stunt that launched a thousand Ruth Reichl comparisons, Wells enlisted “a colleague who wasn’t likely to be recognized” and used said colleague as a control group to test just how much of the excellent service Wells received was special treatment and how much was par for the course. The answer was more of the former than Wells would have liked, leading to the damning charge of elitism and a warning that the restaurant could be “turning its best face away from…precisely the people who would remember a little coddling at a place like Daniel for years.”

Over on the Internet, shit promptly hit the fan (calmly predicted by Wells himself, who let his Twitter followers know the comment section was open “if you want to tell me why I’m wrong.“) The response is mostly shock mixed in with a bit of defensive outrage and a flood of anecdotal evidence. But a small, if vocal, slice of the commentariat have focused on Wells’s decision to conduct the self-described “amateur experiment” at all: was it really the best way of testing Daniel’s egalitarianism? Was it fair to test Daniel at all?

Sending a decoy is a great one-time gimmick, but it’s not a viable long-term solution to the problem of how to write for the average diner when a well-known critic is really anything but.

This isn’t the first time Wells has brought up the issue of being recognized as the city’s most influential critic. Back in October, he dressed down Talde for only getting its act together when motivated by “that nervous energy produced by the sight of a restaurant critic.” It’s hard to read Wells’s criticisms of Daniel without being reminded of his admonishment that if the kitchen at Talde was capable of turning out great food for a critic, “Mr. Talde and his partners should be able to keep conjuring that environment every night,” not just when Wells is in the house.

On the one hand, Wells deserves serious props for recognizing the extent to which his position influences his dining experience. It’s difficult to recommend a restaurant to other diners when one’s experience is totally unique to other diners, and anything a restaurant does to skew a critic’s experience hurts his or her ability to produce valuable criticism. And in many ways, sending a decoy is the perfect way to sniff out flaws a critic otherwise wouldn’t see, and more importantly, the perks that the average diner will never experience.

On the other, it’s not like Wells’s decoy had a bad experience; that’s reserved for the rumors of “hasty, perfunctory service” that prompted the experiment in the first place. Wells is careful to note that “a missing finger bowl [of scented water] won’t mar anyone’s evening,” and it’s hard to imagine feeling shortchanged at receiving one amuse bouche instead of two. And it’s hard not to feel for a top-line restaurant with its reputation on the line. One Eater commenter argues “only on that night (when the critic is dining)…the entire staff could give a fuck about anyone else but the critic,” a sentiment that’s not ideal in an environment where one person’s dollar should be as good as anyone else’s but still makes sense given Wells’s very real influence. Personally, I’d be more shocked if Wells hadn’t gotten the red carpet experience.

Slate‘s L.V. Anderson, meanwhile, points out the more widely applicable issue of critics’ vanishing anonymity. In the age of social media, Anderson argues, it’s virtually impossible for major figures like Wells to go unrecognized. Anderson uses this as an argument for critics’ giving up anonymity altogether, praising Wells for taking a step in the right direction by acknowledging his own special treatment. But anonymity still serves a valuable purpose in evaluating a restaurants’ food and service, and giving it up leaves readers with the question of how we’re supposed to replace the credibility it lends to reviews.

Sending a decoy is a great one-time gimmick, but it’s not a viable long-term solution to the problem of how to write for the average diner when a well-known critic is really anything but.

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