This week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells sets his sights on Daniel, the Upper East Side stalwart of luxurious French cuisine. Four years ago, then-critic Frank Bruni gave Daniel four stars; Wells docks a star, citing “elaborate, multipart compositions that didn’t fully reward the attention they demanded,” “a proliferation of dollhouse garnishes,” and, most memorably, “radicchio so bitter I wanted to slap it.” Wells also mentions another problem, one that reviewers usually pretend doesn’t exist: The fact that he was “repeatedly” recognized at Daniel, and that it affected the service he received.
“While the service can be among the best in the city, with a supreme attentiveness softened by a surprising warmth and even chattiness, it is not always that way for everyone,” Wells writes. He proceeds to detail the discrepancies between the six-course meal he was served and the six-course meal a nonfamous Times colleague was served the very same evening: Wells got two amuse bouches, wine top-offs, and a finger bowl his anonymous co-worker did not. Furthermore:
My servers were solicitous: Was this course, or that one, or that one, prepared to your liking? Was the pacing of the meal satisfactory? Could we interest you in a cheese course? Would you like your espresso with dessert, or after? Finally, as I neared the revolving door on East 65th Street: Can we help you find a cab tonight?
My colleague wasn’t asked any of those questions.
Wells isn’t the first Times restaurant critic to acknowledge the fact that upscale restaurants treat critics better than Average Joes. Ruth Reichl made a splash in 1993 when she visited Le Cirque both as “the unknown diner” (in disguise) and as “a most favored patron” (as herself). And, though Wells used a proxy instead of going the considerably sillier route of donning a wig and makeup, Wells’ conclusion is very similar to Reichl’s 20 years ago. Here’s Reichl:
[N]obody goes to Le Cirque just to eat. People go for the experience of being in a great restaurant. Sometimes they get it; sometimes they don’t. It all depends on who they are.
And here’s Wells:
And while the service can be among the best in the city, with a supreme attentiveness softened by a surprising warmth and even chattiness, it is not always that way for everyone.
(Coincidentally, Daniel Boulud, the proprietor of Daniel, was the executive chef at Le Cirque until shortly before Reichl visited in 1993, and Daniel is on the same block of East 65th Street as Le Cirque’s original location.)
Of course, the fact that restaurants serving $195 tasting menus sometimes treat famous customers better than nonfamous customers isn’t exactly the most important civil rights issue of our time. But Wells performs a public service in acknowledging that the treatment he receives at New York restaurants is sometimes, if not often, much better than the treatment tourists get because his servers know exactly what he looks like. And how couldn’t they? In a social media age, you’d have to avoid having your picture taken your entire adult life to be an effectively anonymous critic. Like Wells, Sam Sifton, the Times critic between Bruni and Wells, had used a headshot on the Times website up until the moment of his appointment. The food blog Eater makes a point of scouring the Web for pictures of major restaurant critics as soon as they’re appointed. (Here’s Eater’s post on Wells.)
And yet restaurant critics on the whole perpetuate the charade of anonymity. (Wells’ Twitter avatar is currently the Muppet Statler.) It’s great for Wells to acknowledge the truth about 21st-century restaurant criticism, but it would be better for him to go one step further, do away with the whole pretense of being an everyman, and go public with his real face. Wells should by all means continue to enlist nonfamous friends to get a sense of how restaurants treat the masses, but it’s time for him to stop pretending he blends in with the masses. As far as elite restaurateurs are concerned, he doesn’t.