Last November, the food world tweeted their mixed responses to New York Times critic Pete Wells' evisceration of Guy Fieri's Guy's American Kitchen and Bar. Wells' review began: "Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?"
From a literary standpoint, Wells' work is a brilliant piece of sarcasm that directs a crescendo of rhetorical questions to Fieri's empty chair.
When you think about it, this event was not unexpected: New York esthetics, and not elitism, collides with Fieri's broad mass-market appeal, his 11 restaurants and his assumed food cred. A food critic is obliged to review high-profile places like Fieri's — and to review them honestly.
Besides, did anyone expect that a high-volume restaurant in Times Square could or should be great? But Wells' underlying assertion is worth repeating: a restaurant located in the heart of the tourist area of Manhattan — or any city, for that matter — should give some evidence to the superb food that city has to offer.
Was Wells' review entertaining? Yes. Did it create conversation? Yes. Popular? Absolutely. A scathing review brings more readers than a positive one. One of my pieces, "Lesson in Bad Service: A Cautionary Take" (Sept. 17, 2006), still has traction and it was a narrative — not a review at all — about the horrible service I had at a restaurant one night.
Often, restaurateurs and chefs respond to negative reviews — or even being reviewed. Fieri defended his restaurant on the Today show. One restaurateur in this town told a CL editor, "Don't have your girl [yes, girl] review my restaurant." To the extreme, in 2010, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila was refused seating and shown the door, but only after the owner took her picture at his Beverly Hills restaurant and posted it online (instantly snuffing her "anonymity" — which, in this age of cell cameras, is almost laughable).
Most critics agree that reviews should be structured around the claim of the chef. If a chef says her burger is the best in the city, it should taste like it. After all, any critic worth her salt has tried all the others. If a menu proclaims an ingredient "fresh," it should be. (I've called out a place for serving canned clams and selling them as fresh.) If the menu notes the produce is from local farms, it better be. (Take heed, new restaurants.) Charge a 400-percent markup on wine? I'll write it. That's a bit excessive, wouldn't you agree?
Critics and chefs should bring a balance to each other. If the Emperor were naked, I'd call him out, too.