Lessons Learned as New York Times Food Critic

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When I meet restaurant lovers, New York Times readers, and people familiar with my memoir, certain questions come up time and again. As I did in a post earlier this week, I'm reproducing some of those questions, along with my usual answers, so that they're more easily and widely accessible to anyone curious about these topics.

Q: In an era when critics are frequently recognized, are restaurant reviews as valid?

A: Yes, I think so. First off, critics have long been recognized. In big and sophisticated cities where the economic stakes are high and where restaurateurs are savvy, the major critics quickly become visually known. Restaurateurs will find a way. I remember, in my first months as the Times's critic, being gawked at by industry people who would walk into a place where I was dining, stand in the vestibule for a few minutes just for the purpose of laying eyes on me, and then leave. I learned through the grapevine that they had been alerted and summoned by the staff where I was eating, and they wanted to give themselves a better shot at spotting me should I ever walk through their front doors.

At the end of the night, a recognized critic still has plenty of insight into the merits of a restaurant.

Bloggers' and industry people's ability to post and share photos on the Internet—and to take pictures surreptitiously with cell-phone cameras—have made it harder for critics to keep a low physical profile. That's certainly true. But critics can still, with pseudonyms and fake phone numbers and such, keep restaurants guessing about when they might come. And restaurants suddenly faced with a critic in the dining room can't change the menu instantly. They can't go shopping right then for better ingredients. They can't get a better service staff, or re-train the line cooks, etc., etc. While a recognized critic's portions may be slightly different from another person's, and while the kitchen may take special care with the order going to a critic's table, the fundamentals that make the restaurant great or mediocre remain in place. And while the service can get better for a critic, it can also get worse: hyper-solicitous, nervous, intrusive.

At the end of the night, a recognized critic still has plenty of insight into the merits of a restaurant. And the only way to have truly physically anonymous critics would be for publications to change critics every three to six months. There'd be no benefit to that. Readers wouldn't be able to figure out how a given critic mirrors or departs from their tastes, and the critic wouldn't develop the long-term frame of reference that helps him or her judge merit in the context of what has and hasn't been achieved in a given city.

Q: Where are you eating tonight?

A: In every city I visit, several people ask me this question, and it always makes me smile, because there's usually such a local-pride sweetness embedded in it. The questioner wants to hear that there's a local establishment I'm dying to try, or wants to know what about his or her city caught an outsider's eye.

But my answer, usually, is, "I don't know." Or, "nowhere, really." And I mention that for the following reason: too often, those of us who swim deeply in the food culture of the moment give the impression that every dining choice made is a deeply considered one, that life is a series of carefully researched, freighted judgment calls about the content, and destination, of every single meal. But is life really lived that way? Can it ever be? Do any of us really have the time or energy (or budget) for that?


MORE ON REVIEWING:
Frank Bruni: "Q & A, Part One"
Corby Kummer: "Critics and the Web"

I know I don't. And as often as not, when I wrap up a day on the road around 9:00 p.m., I'm tired enough or eager enough for a solitary moment or interested enough in NOT thinking so hard about eating and food that I just get room service, or plop myself on a bar stool at a restaurant that I select spur-of-the-moment, or do something along those lines. I make a deliberate decision NOT to deliberate too much. I eat incidentally, serendipitously, in the service of basic nourishment, not epicurean enlightenment. I've never had a room-service burger I hated, maybe because I could never hate the indulgence of eating something in bed, with a bad TV rerun of some kind playing a few feet away, and with the knowledge that someone else has cleanup duties.

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Frank Bruni was the restaurant critic for The New York Times from June 2004 to September 2009. He is the author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite. Learn more at bornround.com. More

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His latest book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, is now out in paperback. To learn more about Born Round and ask questions about the book, click here.

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