With three days having passed since New York Times dining critic Pete Wells unleashed his brutal review of Guy Fieri's Times Square monstrosity, it's probably a good time to size up l'affaire Fieri's winners and losers. Fieri's brand obviously took a beating, and the makers of El Jimador no doubt wish the blue watermelon margarita that blinded Wells was a bestseller instead of a menu casualty. So who's in the winners' column? Wells, print journalism and restaurant critics.
It surely was Fieri's fame and not Wells' brilliant writing style which made the story a sensation. Wells wrote just as compellingly and creatively about Talde and Yunnan Kitchen, but the number of people outside of New York who cared about those reviews would probably add up to a reasonably-sized dinner party. Of course, it helped that Wells hated the place: Nobody wants to hang around to watch a critic make googly eyes at a restaurant. It's far more fun when there's a fight.
But the reaction was outsized even for a scorcher. David Letterman's staff worked up a Top 10 list, and Today asked Dr. Phil to assess Wells' mindset. That's like having Bob Schieffer interview an experimental hip hop duo about why they split with their producer. Restaurant reviewing is an esoteric field, especially in this economy, and it's not too often it merits national media attention.
That's partly because critics typically don't review restaurants like Guy's American Kitchen & Bar. They demonstrate their anti-elitism by writing up taquerias and cheap seafood shacks, yet refuse to cover chain restaurants. And when critics do venture into chain restaurants, they usually write cynical stories that are more about themselves than their experiences: I didn't much care for Jonathan Gold's review of Olive Garden, which predated Marilyn Hagerty's review by nearly a year.
But what Wells' review proved was that reviews of big box restaurants don't have to be egocentrically nasty: By composing a review completely of questions, he kept the "I" out of it. And, as Saveur's Helen Rosner pointed out, he didn't draw the patronizing conclusion that big, gaudy restaurants shouldn't be held to certain standards. Without getting too wildly philosophical, Wells told an important story that transcended his dislike of donkey sauce: The question underlying all of his other questions was "How can you blow this chance to expose your audience to the glories of vernacular American cooking?"
To many experienced eaters, the review seemed too obvious. They felt the review smacked of set-up and stunt. (Wells has said he'd hoped to be able to write the man-bites-dog review, in which he'd coronate Fieri as a culinary genius.) But there are plenty of Americans who don't share their jaded attitude: Since the review was published, my mother, brother and a high school friend have e-mailed to ask "who's this Guy guy?" For many readers, Wells' review was an introduction to an important (if not beloved) segment of our current food culture.
John Birdsall has written about how much he hopes Wells' review will usher in an era of smarter, more stylish food writing. I hope it too forces critics to rethink which restaurants they're reviewing and why. The blanket prohibition on chain restaurant reviews may not make sense in a society dominated by Joe's Crab Shacks and Applebee's. The tremendously talented television critics who are partly responsible for the medium's current golden age don't ignore the shows that everyone else watches.
I'm not arguing that critics should give up on independent restaurants, which are essential to our local food cultures and economies. Nor am I ready to absolve corporate restaurants of their many sins, which include supporting the industrial agricultural system and sometimes mistreating their workers. But chain restaurants also create lots and lots of jobs, and bring kimchi and chipotle sauces into isolated rural areas where no mom-and-pop could possibly afford to open.
Last week, I made my first-ever trip to The Melting Pot, drawn by a release touting a Ladies Night. The idea of stressed-out women drowning their sorrows in melted cheese seemed too goofy to resist, so I invited our contributor Sonja Groset to join me for an evening of gruyere. Despite our initial skepticism, we had a great time: Service was excellent, and while the food was seriously undersalted (who would have guessed, right?), the pace of the dinner was perfect, and the cozy room really was suited to gabbing.
As we finished our peanut butter and chocolate fondue pot, I briefly wondered whether I'd have to sacrifice any professional credibility to hail The Melting Pot. That worry should never cross a reviewer's mind. I hope the fallout of the Wells column is that we can welcome all restaurants into the critical fold, for censure and praise.