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Peter Meehan Leaves the Times, An Exit Interview

Last week it came out that '$25 and Under' columnist for the New York Times Peter Meehan resigned his post after almost four years at the paper. It's not often a reviewer for the Times voluntarily leaves (Asimov did the Under column for over a decade), plus Meehan's got some fans in New York. Without further ado, P.F.M. on his experience at the paper, what he thinks of the recent changes, where he's going next, and much more:

Why did you decide to leave the Times?
It was time. I was walking home one afternoon and realized I was done. I picked up the phone and called Nick [Fox, deputy editor for the dining section] right then and there. I don't think there is ever a good time to stop doing one of the awesomest jobs in the world for one of the world's most august news organizations, but this is mine.

Did it have anything to do with your column getting cut back?
Not really. That bothered me a lot more a year ago than it does now.

When they cut the column did they guarantee you some dining articles or a number of dining briefs to compensate?
No. That's not how we work together.

On the same note, are you freelance? How many people on the Dining page are full time staff and how many are freelance?
Yes and plenty. From Pete Wells' Talk to the Newsroom: 'We have two critics, Frank Bruni on restaurants and Eric Asimov on wine. And we have three staff reporters, Marian Burros, Kim Severson and Julia Moskin, who's on leave at the moment. Then there are three freelancers who write virtually every week, Florence Fabricant, Mark Bittman and Peter Meehan.'

What are your thoughts on the Dining Briefs? Do they work?
I don't really have good perspective on the briefs. They bumped the column I got to write, so I have a standoffish relationship with them. I can see their value, and I've enjoyed highlighting beer spots like Beer Table and Barcade that we might not have featured otherwise.

If you could choose your successor, who would it be?
No idea. Nina Lalli? Or somebody in a position like I was in when I got the gig, with no name, no profile and everything to prove? Somebody fucking hungry, that's for sure.

What future do you see for the Under column? Do you think the Times will ax it? You think they should raise the cut off from $25?
(a) if you give me $5, I will go to the palm reader down the block and ask her.
(b) no.
(c) yes and no. Does that help?

What are the hidden tolls of writing the column?
Not getting to eat enough of everything local while it's in season. Weight gain. Uncontrollable urges for dishes that are an hour away on a train line you don't live near. Never getting to go back and eat at some of the places I really loved because there were always new places to go check out.

But if I've learned anything doing this gig, it's that unless I'm across the table from Frank, bitching about the minor indignities of restaurant reviewing is pretty boring to everybody except the person doing the complaining.

Favorite review(s) from your tenure?
Being a sentimental fool, I like my earliest reviews the best. Una Pizza, Queens Hideaway and Waterfront International Enterprises come to mind. But really, it's always about the next place, the next find, the next chance to do it better.

How many times do you think you were recognized and/or outed?
I don't know. Probably a lot more often on a third visit – at which point I know the restaurant is going in – than on the first or second. I don't know how much it matters on my beat, though I do consider anonymity to be an essential tool in the reviewer's bag of tricks.

What will you miss?
I won't miss the countless bad meals that are a necessary part of finding the good ones. I will miss everything else, especially working with Nick Fox, who has helped me out a bunch over the years. But my relationship with the Times and the Dining Section isn't over, so I'll be able to go back and get a fix every now and again.

What are you planning on next?
Obsessing over new restaurants less. Traveling more. Learning to fish. Cooking. Writing. You know, just getting on with it.

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