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Dinner with Schmucks

The faux populism of contemporary food writing

Welcome to TAK Room. Take a seat right here, in one of our cushioned banquettes. Settle in. Let your eyes wander out onto Hudson Yards—our view of The Vessel simply can’t be beat. Have a flute of blanc de blancs while the jazz band tunes up and you look over the menu. You must be hungry. How about some grilled lamb? The chops are $75, but then again, they were raised at Elysian Fields. Too pedestrian? Let’s move along to the New York strip. One hundred sixty dollars may sound like a lot for a steak, but as a food critic, you surely understand that to charge such a price, the chef must be confident in his ability to prepare a phenomenal hunk of meat.

Such are the environs that inspire the restaurant reviewer’s creed: no price point is too high for sufficiently delicious food. That key tenet of the profession has endured even as spreading awareness of extreme wealth inequality in the long wake of the Great Recession has prompted other journalists to expose how the preferences of the elite disfigure their various fields of inquiry. Food critics have been left behind in this reckoning, with only the most self-aware scrambling to justify a job that revolves around assessing the quality of restaurants only rich people can afford to eat at. The result? A bizarre tightrope walk wherein the critic celebrates extravagantly priced food even as they crack woke about the oligarchs it’s being served to.

Tejal Rao, in a recent New York Times roundup of Michelin darlings in Napa Valley, portrayed herself as “overwhelmed by the opulence . . . like a character in a sci-fi movie who had sneaked onto a spaceship for the one percent, now orbiting a burning planet.” As she drove around “wine country, racking up the expenses,” she observed how the region had been transformed by the peccadillos of Silicon Valley billionaires, with one restaurant giving off the vibe of a “modernist country club” and another taking the farm-to-table fad to the extreme, as exemplified by a cook coming tableside to present “a basket of herbs, flowers and vegetables being used in the kitchen that night, annotating as he goes.”

However laughable she finds these affectations, Rao nevertheless deems the food at all three restaurants to be stellar. There’s a golden egg full of macaroni and cheese she calls “absurdly delicious,” and her mind is blown by “what appeared to be a chunk of corn on the cob” but instead turns out to be “a sweet, tender replica made of corn custard, served with a quenelle of caviar, gleaming with pecan oil.” One stop even proves to her “what’s possible when both the kitchen and the wait staff are operating at the highest level: sustained indulgence in an atmosphere of total comfort.”

This awkward posing, in which the critic’s fellow diners are othered into a swarm of pampered dingbats even as she glorifies the food they’re eating, is far from unique to Rao. In her review of the glitzy Chinese eatery Hutong, The New Yorker’s Jiayang Fan notes both the women who have arrived to eat “in floor-length evening gowns and stacked Louboutins” and the tantalizing Peking duck, which “takes at least twenty-four hours to prepare and leaves the meat so supple that it all but melts in your mouth.” After the deluxe Japanese chain Zuma opened a branch in a Boston tower that includes a Four Seasons, Globe critic Devra First described pulling up her “dented Subaru behind a cherry-red Lamborghini” and sharing an elevator “with a woman whose handbag costs more than my mortgage payment.” None of this stopped her, once upstairs, from going goo-goo over the restaurant’s open hearth, used to leave scallops “deeply charred yet still tender at the center, topped with orange roe and frilly purple shiso leaves.”

These critics—and many others—are mimicking the work of Pete Wells, who, since ascending to the food critic’s chair at the Times in 2011, has repeatedly cast himself as a man of the people even as he continues his paper’s tradition of lavishing attention on the preferred hangouts of hedge fund managers. His signature is a direct invocation of price followed by a dubious consideration of whether or not the dishes they’re assigned to are really worth it. Just take his pan of Peter Luger Steak House that went viral last October, where the current iteration of the restaurant is said to pale in comparison to Wells’s fond memories of his visits in the nineties, back when he had no expense account and was thus “acutely aware of the cost” but still willing to shell out “because a Peter Luger steak made me feel alive in a way that few other things did.”

The Peter Luger review is only the most recent of Wells’s to have exploded across social media. The first such piece—and the one that made Wells a nationally recognized name—was on a goofy Guy Fieri restaurant in Times Square which he reviewed entirely through outlandish rhetorical questions. That review was good for a laugh; much more impactful was his dismantling of the heinously expensive Per Se in 2016, which served as a meticulous chronicle of how the “perception of Per Se as one of the country’s great restaurants” had become outdated. “Is Per Se worth the time and money?” he asked, before concluding, “In and of itself, no.”

If one’s only encounters with Wells come on a Twitter timeline, it’s possible to mistake him for a resolute ally of the crowd. Such superficial reading is what led Slate to once call him a “populist hero” and Thrillist to half-jokingly speculate the critic is “quite possibly a secret member of a food proletariat quietly using his position to destroy the last vestiges of true fine dining in this country.” In reality, astronomical price points are no black mark for Wells, so long as he can be persuaded the dishes justify the outlay. That’s rarely more starkly apparent than in his review of TAK Room, where he writes “an eggplant Parmesan is the least expensive main course, at $30, followed by the New Zealand salmon for $42. After that, please turn off all electronic devices and place your tray tables in the upright, locked position, because we are going up to $66 and $75 before reaching a cruising altitude of $85. Look down there—don’t the people look just like ants?”

Having acknowledged the preposterousness of the prices at TAK Room, Wells immediately sets about defending them. He reassures the reader that some of those cruising altitude dishes “are so inexplicably delicious that you have the sensation of slipping the knots of gravity and floating an inch or so above your seat.” An item described on the menu as a “warm soft boiled egg” ($46) is “a quietly joyous celebration of luxurious flavors and textures.” The “gulf prawn cocktail” ($28) is the “platonic ideal” of that standby, while the “Maine lobster thermidor” is “so tender, its sauce so fluffy and rich, that eating it becomes an intimate act.” That is, so long as you can stomach your intimate acts costing as much as a heating bill.

Tastes Like Chicken

No matter how hoity-toity a restaurant or aristocratic its clientele, food critics like Wells will excuse nearly any price so long as they like the food. In one of the last reviews Providence Cicero penned before leaving the Seattle Times last year, she hailed a minimalist nine-seat sushi counter where “the quality warrants the cost—$100 before beverages, tax, and 20 percent service charge.” In his review of Ocean Prime, the Chicago Tribune’s venerable Phil Vettel admitted that “main courses are pricey,” with fish “in the $40s, shellfish $52 and $65.” Luckily, those high-dollar sea denizens aren’t “lonesome on the plate; there’s nearly always a vegetable or two along for the ride.”

Such rationalizations have long been commonplace in food criticism, yet the San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho tests the outer limits of their plausibility in her review of Hina Yakitori, an eatery that charges $110 for a prix fixe menu consisting of different riffs on grilled chicken on a stick. While acknowledging that the jokes about a restaurant fusing yakitori, one of Japan’s most humble food traditions, with omakase, its most illustrious, “practically write themselves,” Ho nevertheless hails the restaurant as “exceptional not only in concept but in the way it performs a populist genre of food at the most persnickety possible level.” Hina Yakitori’s cooks use the “top-grade charcoal in Japan” for grilling their chicken skewers, Ho writes, and “every course is precisely synchronized so that each bite is delivered at optimal temperature.” The service, of course, befits the bill: “Between courses, one of the four servers will drop by to quietly wipe the plate that serves as your yakitori pedestal.”

One hundred sixty dollars may sound like a lot for a steak, but as a food critic, you surely understand that to charge such a price, the chef must be confident in his ability to prepare a phenomenal hunk of meat.

Ho’s apologia of Hina Yakitori is unrelenting, its forcefulness only serving to underscore her awareness of how irrational it is to spend over a hundred bucks on a meal of chicken skewers when—as she herself admits—you could find a delicious version of the same sort of food for a tenth the price across the bay in Oakland. Is the food at Hina Yakitori better? Undoubtedly. Does that mean it’s worth an order of magnitude more money? The answer can only be yes if one is willing to accede to the food critic’s sense of value, a sense that is far distorted from what any workaday person who actually has to pay for their meals would share.

In a 2016 New Yorker profile, Wells provided some background on his evaluation of Per Se. “It’s a complicated restaurant, and still does some things well,” he says. At the same time, “they’re charging so much money. It got to a level of math that I can’t do! It broke the computers in my head.” Despite his observation that Per Se was, at its best, “respectably dull,” he nevertheless chickened out of truly panning it and instead assigned the restaurant a two-star rating—the same rating he gave to TAK Room, which also received the “Critic’s Pick” designation. Two unrepentantly pricey restaurants with the same number of stars. One is a “grand, hermetic, self-regarding, ungenerous restaurant.” The other is home to “the most refined, meticulous country club food you’ve ever seen.” If the Per Se review did indeed break the computers in Wells’s head, his assessment of TAK Room proves they’re still being rebooted.

The Canapés of Wrath

Not all food writers share Wells’s fraught relationship with money. The supercilious Jay Rayner, who has spent two decades at the British magazine the Observer, is far and away the most committed holdout of restaurant criticism as it has historically been practiced, with high prices understood as a fact of fine dining that is hardly worth mentioning.

Frustrated by online commenters who were constantly “whingeing about the cost of the restaurants I review,” Rayner took to his blog in 2018 to pen a “one-size-fits-all response.” After going point by point through the broad categories of “crass, ignorant, virtue-signaling self-serving comments about price” he receives, Rayner lands on a few justifications for why he rarely brings up money in his reviews. “The fact is this. Some people have disposable income. They are entitled to spend it how they wish.” As for those who don’t, Rayner argues that there’s nothing wrong with them wanting to read about restaurants they can’t afford, given that “it provides vicarious pleasure.” “Let’s be clear,” he sums up:

Some restaurants do take the piss money wise. And when they do, I say so. But there is a great difference between price and value. I have paid £400 of my own money for a meal that I thought was worth it . . . But I have also spent £20 on a meal that I thought was a rip off and I have said so. The issue is never the spending of money on food in restaurants. It’s always what that money buys.

Rayner’s peers, however they may object to his abrasiveness, by and large accept the distinction he draws between price and value. Every time they highlight the extremity of a menu before stating definitively that there is indeed enough value to be found at a place like Hina Yakitori or TAK Room to justify dropping a few hundred dollars, critics like Ho and Wells are simply making explicit a core tenet of fine dining that someone like Rayner is annoyed about even having to address.

Where these critics do differ with Rayner is in their willingness to participate in his loathed “virtue-signaling” about the difference between getting great value for a $20 meal or a $200 one. After all, why harp on the Lamborghini-driving guests who are indulging in the latter if one is not keenly aware that they are the only ones for whom $200 meals are interchangeable, and thus able to chase after the best possible version? Value is plenty important for people who regularly eat out for $20 or less, but that doesn’t mean they could be persuaded to go blow a hundred bucks on chicken skewers just because the experience is said to be worth it.

To suss out the Times’ opinion on which foods matter, one need only observe the bright line the paper draws between places reviewed by Wells and those covered by the “Hungry City” column, which mostly highlights the affordable, outer-borough restaurants that tend to be owned by immigrants.

Rayner’s deceptively simple framing of price and value is further complicated by the fact eminent food critics don’t actually have to pay for the food they review. Sure, he may have once shelled out four hundred quid on dinner, but how much easier was that check to stomach given that he’s spent the past twenty years regularly charging the same types of meals to the Observer? Getting stuff for free is one of the few unalloyed perks of being a critic, but for those covering music, movies, or books, the prices of the products under consideration are relatively stable. The question of value for those critics is thus much more easily disambiguated from a prosaic consideration of whether or not a film is worth paying the price of admission, meaning evaluation of the work can proceed almost exclusively on artistic terms.

In order to follow the same procedure, food critics have historically sought to divide their ambit into tiers within which similar appraisals can be organized. Decades ago, the Times included a note on all its restaurant reviews stating their “ratings are based on the reviewer’s reaction to food and price in relation to comparable establishments.” The point was not to compare any old two-star restaurant to another, but instead to have a mechanism for succinctly denoting tiers of steakhouses or red sauce joints. Though the Times has since dropped the disclaimer, many critics remain beholden to the mode of thinking they embody. As Wells put it to The New Yorker, his goal with a review is always to analyze how close restaurants “come to being the best possible version of themselves.”

Most critics in other fields swear by a similar ethos, but again, without having to contend with the question of how meeting that standard often means jacking up prices to account for premium ingredients, luxurious decor, top-flight staff, and a healthy return for deep-pocketed investors. Likewise, the acumen of other critics does not face the same threat of being distorted by repeated encounters with the very high end of the market minus any associated personal cost. If one is routinely expensing checks for three or four hundred dollars a guest, at some point only having to spend $100 feels like a bargain. Meals that cost even less hardly require critical attention at all—why, at that point you might as well be reviewing a McDonald’s.

The Hungry, Hungry City

To suss out the Times’ opinion on which foods matter, one need only observe the bright line the paper draws between places reviewed by Wells and those covered by the “Hungry City” column, which mostly highlights the affordable, outer-borough restaurants that tend to be owned by immigrants. Wells told The New Yorker he’s uncomfortable with this split in coverage, saying “I do the ‘real’ restaurants, and these are something else—not worthy of stars?” Yet in his previous role as the Times’ food editor, Wells was the one who oversaw the launch of “Hungry City” as a column cordoned off from the rest of the section.

The critic Wells hired in 2008 to write “Hungry City,” Ligaya Mishan, has subsequently emerged as a widely admired champion of lesser-known cuisines, even as the restaurants she writes about are implicitly labeled second-class by the fact that she, and not Wells, is reviewing them. It’s a discrepancy that reveals the elitism that the Times’ notions of value are freighted with: in order for a meal to be “worth the money,” it has to cost a lot in the first place. The only exceptions come when a cheaper outpost—Superiority Burger or Bruno Pizza, say—generates so much buzz in the industry that the Gray Lady feels it must hold forth (buzz, it goes without saying, that is almost never forthcoming for restaurants owned by people of color and located outside of Manhattan or gentrified Brooklyn).

In an interview with Slate, Wells admitted that many of the restaurants he covers are so exclusive that he often wonders “how many people they’re actually serving.” Despite that reservation, he still believes such places demand his attention because they are often “where the food is extremely creative and thought-out and a lot of care is taken.” His role, in this envisioning, is as much about evaluating a restaurant on its own merits as it is chronicling what he calls “advances in the field.” The implication being that such innovations are not to be found at the places Mishan reviews and are instead the sole domain of fine dining.

This perspective feels deeply regressive when compared to the sort of food criticism exemplified by the late Jonathan Gold, whose long career at LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times revolved around elevating and celebrating taco trucks, strip mall izakayas, and French bistros situated in old funeral parlors. Gold covered big openings from star chefs as well as these unheralded spots, and his ability to put them in conversation with each other gave his writing a refreshingly democratic quality. Gold could care less for “advances in the field”; his job was to find good food and write about it.

Despite all of Wells’s admirers and imitators, there are encouraging signs that a number of younger critics are choosing to instead follow the path charted by Gold, especially in the wake of his passing in 2018. Mishan may be the most influential of these writers, but she is hardly alone. The Seattle Times replaced Providence Cicero with the tag team of Bethany Jean Clement and Tan Vinh, who, in an introductory article explained that though they were keeping the paper’s star ratings in place, they would do their best to disentangle those grades from the “arbitrary, antiquated” standards of the past. “We’ll give a much-anticipated place from a top-notch chef in a historical space three-and-a-half out of four stars,” Clement wrote last summer, “and we’ll also give a spot in a mall serving the best xiao long bao we’ve ever had the same stellar rating.” This approach feels like a necessary revamping of the old standard, with the idea of “comparable establishments” expanding to include anywhere that serves food.

No matter how resolutely they uphold the fine dining caste system that has been in place for decades, Wellsian pussyfooters never tire of casting themselves as oppositional to the haughty restaurants they write about.

Those writers stand in stark opposition to Rayner and his retrogressive cohort—which, in the United States, must be said to include the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, who in a recent review claimed Westchester County’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns “sets the standard for American fine dining.” Sietsema yadda yaddaed the details of the restaurant’s bills (which surpass $400 per person once an optional wine pairing is factored in) with a single adjective: “lofty.” In between these extremes extends a vast middle of equivocators, hoping to enjoy their tasting menus without giving up referring to themselves as “cheapskates,” as Wells did in a recent review of a sushi place where he has managed to squeak out a two-star quality meal for just over $100.

No matter how resolutely they uphold the fine dining caste system that has been in place for decades, Wellsian pussyfooters never tire of casting themselves as oppositional to the haughty restaurants they write about. Why else would The New Yorker’s Hannah Goldfield sniff about a champagne bar’s decision to not include tasting notes on its wine list, “I guess you already know—or don’t care—what a forty-five-hundred-dollar bottle of 2000 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay tastes like if you have forty-five hundred dollars to spend on a bottle of 2000 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay.” The point Goldfield is making is so obvious that simply broaching it constitutes a gratuitous performance of relatability.

All of this raises a fundamental question: Why write about these restaurants at all? The audience that has the ability and inclination to spend $450 on a tasting menu, let alone $4,500 on champagne, is vanishingly small. For Rayner, such places are worthy of attention because they might offer readers “vicarious pleasure”; for Wells, it’s their ability to elucidate trends in dining. Undoubtedly there is an audience in search of both. But does that audience also harbor interest in the reviewer’s thoughts about the people who can afford to eat at these places? However warped the view of critics like Rayner, at least they’re consistently odious. Wells’s set knows how morally blinkered it is to regularly spend hundreds of dollars eating exquisitely prepared sea urchin. What’s galling is how that knowledge compels them to make the reader aware that they know this but does not extend far enough to make them just stop doing it.

Restaurant reviewing has its place. Going out to eat stewards a vital culture of conviviality. But the setting where such culture thrives is not at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns, or Hina Yakitori, or TAK Room. It’s at the eateries most people can actually afford to go to. Burrito shops, dim sum cafeterias, vegan diners. That so many of our critics ignore that obvious fact only underscores how glutted they have become by expense-account dining at the periphery of the jet set. If that’s the life they want, so be it. In exchange, I simply ask they accept that doing so disqualifies them from writing about food for the rest of us.