With all that's been written about Frank Bruni's departure from the high post of New York Times restaurant critic—a move brought on in part by the publication of his eating memoir, Born Round—is there anything left to say? In fact, there is. Last Wednesday, on the day his last review appeared in the newspaper, Eater invited Mr. Bruni to join editor Amanda Kludt and co-founder Lockhart Steele for dinner at Mario Batali's West Village Italian restaurant, Babbo—the restaurant Bruni chose to inaugurate his reviewing binge back in June 2004. (He gave it three stars.) He graciously accepted.
What follows is a largely intact transcript of that evening. Though much has been edited out for space or clarity reasons, much remains: this interview is not for the faint of heart, or those faint of Frank. Think of it as a coda for the fanboys (and girls!), one last dinner with the man we'll always know as The Bruni.
I. IT BEGINS
[Babbo General Manager escorts the group to table at right rear, then breaks third wall to thank Bruni for his kindness to the restaurant over the years. Only mildly awkward. Menus are distributed, and the tape recorder activated.]
BRUNI: I guess because it was pretty much the last day, I got a number of emails from chefs.
AK: Can you tell us who sent emails?
BRUNI: Yeah, I can tell you some of them. Eric Ripert did.
AK: All the four-star chefs.
BRUNI: No, no, no. Here's what's interesting. Eric Ripert is someone who would find an excuse to email every nine months. But not in an intrusive way. I remember the first time I dined at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, I get back to my desk and there's an email from Eric, saying, "How did you like your lunch?" You know, a kind of naughty email essentially saying, "I saw you there."
AK: So are a lot of people coming to you out of the woodwork now, like that guy [the maitre'd]?
BRUNI: I haven't been to that many restaurants since I left the reviewer role. I went to Peasant one week and they tried to comp the check and I didn't let them.
AK: You're going to eat for free for the next five years.
BRUNI: No, because I still can't. It's inappropriate. I think I'm going to get offers a lot, but I'm not going to do it. On that night, to my friends' consternation, I insisted that we pay for everything. Because [my friends] were like, "Oh, free meal. Yeah!"
AK: When was the last time you've been here?
BRUNI: Oh, I haven't been here in about two and a half years. I'm really glad they put us downstairs. Last time, I ate upstairs and I didn't like it as much up there.
[The Babbo General Manager reappears tableside.]
GENERAL MANAGER [conversationally]: By the way, I was supposed to be Stanley Tucci's interrogator [in Julie & Julia] but then at the last minute they decided that our foreheads were too similar.
BRUNI: Nora Ephron put so many food world people in the film. But you know, I couldn't spot Jeffrey Steingarten.
GM: She didn't know I was from Babbo.
BRUNI: You guys [at Eater] should do a piece on all of the foodies who hit the cutting room floor. Nora had the scene written with Amanda Hesser and she knows Amanda socially—and I think she asked herself, "Well, who do I have to play Amanda?" And she thought, "Well, maybe I should just have Amanda play Amanda?" And from that, she just thought, "Maybe I should scatter the movie with names from the New York food world that aren't necessarily visually recognizable."
GM: Which Mike Nichols does all the time!
BRUNI: Right. So it's sort of like an inside joke told by Nora to Nora. I was told Jeffrey Steingarten was an extra, but i didn't see him. He probably hit the cutting room floor. Ed Levine is an extra—but most everyone hit the cutting room floor.
GM: I didn't see Ed.
BRUNI: In the original script my character has a line and when I went on the set, so, according to SAG rules, I got a third of a trailer with my character's name on it. Because there are all of these rules, and if your character has a line, then you have to be treated a certain way. I had a stand-in person who had to sit there while there were doing lighting.
GM: I was very proud of the fact that I recognized you because there aren't many people who could pick you out.
BRUNI: I was just sad that I didn't get to keep the clothes. I dropped so many hints like, "These fit me so well."
GM: I'm trying to remember—it was something very light colored.
BRUNI: I would never wear it. I had a white jacket on.
GM: That's it!
[The GM departs, and the waiter appears. It should be noted that the waiter has filed his own essay concerning this particular meal.]
WAITER: Our pastas tonight are a very simple ricotta ravioli with pesto sauce. And then we do a simple linguine with... [the rest of the specials are outlined].
LS: What are you going to get?
BRUNI: I don't really want much. Oh God. What are you getting?
LS: We're going to eat some tomatoes.
BRUNI: I would be completely happy if we just got a couple of starters and pastas to share. You guys order.
AK: Do you want a night off?
BRUNI: I've done too much ordering in my life.
LS: Let's pick some pastas, and what else do you want to get to start?
AK: Let's start with... [loud chopping sound, with Bruni, cutting into chickpea bruschetta amuse, spraying portion of the dish across the table.]
BRUNI: Oh my God, I'm sorry. Did I ruin your shirt?
LS: No, that was awesome.
AK: Could you tell me about the second pasta again?
WAITER: Sure. We serve it with sundried cherry tomatoes that we saute with a little extra virgin olive oil. We mix it with a light tomato sauce. It's really simple.
LS: We'll do a caprese... For pastas, let's do that bavette...
WAITER: If you're looking for a pasta, my favorite is a pasta that we do from our tasting menu—with corn. It's served with a white butter sauce and chives. You can order it a la carte.
LS: Great. That's two. And one more pasta?
AK: How's your bucatini?
WAITER: Great. It's a classic. It would fit in really well. Or maybe I would fit in a ravioli. Maybe the beef cheek ravioli? There's also a ravioli with a creamy walnut pesto.
BRUNI [suddenly looking excited]: Creamy walnut pesto?
II. ON THE STAR SYSTEM
LS: So the piece you're writing for next Wednesday—
AK: Are you going to talk about the zero star reviews? Your favorite spots?
BRUNI: Alan [Richman] and I were talking this morning about zero star reviews. It's just so funny, this has been—way more than political reporting—an amazing education in how everything is in the eye of the beholder. I probably only see a quarter of the blogosphere chatter out there. By design. Because you could go down the rabbit hole. At the end of the day, how do you know who's kind of intelligent and who's not. Whatever. But, one of the things that kind of came into my consciousness recently was that I happened to read something—I don't even know where it was—I think it was New York Journal, that's that Marc Shepherd guy, right?
AK: Oh yeah.
LS: He's going to be thrilled that you know who he is.
BRUNI: I think it was him that wrote something about my positive reviews never being convincing. I just remember reading that and wondering if there was any merit to that. And then I sat down for this radio show with Alan Richman today, and he went on and on about what he liked about my tenure was that he thought that nobody wrote as good of a positive review. This taught me more than any job I've ever been in about how Rashomon this world is and reinforced my belief that, at the end of the day, you have to listen to your own drummer. Otherwise, you would go crazy trying to triangulate between all of the advice and naysaying. I may have been the worst critic we ever had; I may have been one of the best—I have no fucking idea. But I was honest. I tried to be honest.
LS: But the star thing. In your Babbo review, you talked about the difference between a three and a four star review. So from day one, you were directly addressing it.
BRUNI: There's such an incredible history and lore to the Times' star system. Restaurants are the only thing that we review with stars and it gives it a sort of a bigness—a ritual bigness. It is impossible to not be conscious of it. So yeah, I thought about that a lot. It's also tough not to think about it because it has such interesting economic implications, and I think if you're a remotely moral person you have to sweat the star rating. Because you can see in the way that restaurants behave that often the difference between one, two or three—
LS: It's one thing for you to stress the stars behind the scenes, and it's another to directly address the fact that you're thinking about it, which you did right off the bat in that Babbo review.
BRUNI: I don't think that was good. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake.
BRUNI: I think that should always be implicit. In writing my last review of The Redhead today—I'm sure that if I polled the blogosphere, there would be people that would say, "Oh, that sounded more like a two star review." And you know, they may be right. I actually thought, in an earlier draft of that review in my head, I thought about writing, "So why isn't this getting two stars?" But I thought, that's cheap. There should be things in this review that one could say, "Your explanation is there if you read carefully." In retrospect regarding Babbo, it was silly of me to actually talk about three versus four stars. But I was new and I wanted to talk about this restaurant's shortcomings, so I used that construct. The other problem with that approach is that it seems really self-referential. I think I could have not used that construct and my meaning would have been just as implicitly clear. I would do that one over—but not the rating.
II (CODA). ELEVEN MADISON PARK, KO, AND THE ETERNAL FOUR-STAR DEBATE
AK: Are there other things you'd change about your reviews?
BRUNI: There are a lot of reviews I would write differently. There are a lot of star ratings that I question, but I feel like it would be wrong to name the restaurants, because at the moment I had to make the decision, which was the moment when my evidence was much fresher, I made a decision and my hindsight about it may be doubly inaccurate. There are so many restaurants where they were right on the line. There were so many restaurants where I didn't decide the star rating until I filed the review on a Monday at 3pm. Or where the star rating was decided in part by how the review read to me. And then there are other restaurants that, from the first visit—they could have had a horrible subsequent night which would have affected it, or an outstanding one, but you just knew in your bones that this was a two-star restaurant. You just knew it. And those were always the restaurants that everybody rated the same. They were so what they were that there was just no argument. And I think at least half of them are that way. And whether they would say it or not, they know exactly what their rating is. Most everyone wants one more star than they're going to get. But I think there are one- or two-star places that would have been floored to pick up the paper, or pick up New York magazine, and seen one star more [than they deserved] and been like "No! I don't deserve that! I wasn't aiming for that!" And they'd probably actually be bummed—because they'd be like, "Oh my God, I've got to upgrade the linens!" That's the other thing: I'm not sure any favor is done to an Eleven Madison Park by giving them a fourth star.
AK: Oh I don't know about that! It gets them the esteem they want; it gets them the business they want.
BRUNI: I think esteem and business are two different things. What I mean by that is I'm sure they were all happy—everybody wants their talent and hard work affirmed, obviously—but I'm not sure anyone does a restaurant a business favor right now by giving it a fourth star, because what you say to a lot of the casual public is, this is a special event, pricey restaurant.
AK: Isn't it already a special-event restaurant?
BRUNI: One of the reasons I took pains in that [11 Madison] review to say that this is the most accessible of the four-star restaurants is, I didn't want it to suffer for its fourth star. And I think that—
LS: I would think a lot of people would think that getting a fourth star would be an automatic goldmine.
BRUNI: You know how I know that? There are people who say to me, socially, "Do you have a recommendation for a really nice restaurant? I'm taking my boss out to thank him," or "I'm taking my wife out for our anniversary, but I don't want a four-star restaurant." That's their shorthand for, "I don't want to go bankrupt, I don't want to wear a jacket and a tie." It seems to me axiomatic that if people see four stars attached to a restaurant, they are going to make certain assumptions about how physically constricted and proper they are going to have to be.
LS: In your piece today, you were talking about Ko, for example, saying, "Maybe my successor will come to Momofuku Ko and decide that this is four-star dining." That's the farthest thing in the goddamn world from what you're talking about.
BRUNI: It's so weird that people make assumptions. I would have loved nothing more—this is what I mean about trying to be really honest—I would have loved nothing more than to give a restaurant like Ko four stars. It would have made me so happy.
LS: But could you really function that far outside the presumptions about how the Times star system works?
LS: An average Times reader maybe looks at your list of four-star places—I'm playing devil's advocate here—
BRUNI: And you're playing it well. That's wrong, and that's their bad. If they're not going to read the full review and listen to the description or even read the capsule review, in which we make all that clear—I mean, I would have loved, as a matter of principle, to have given an Italian restaurant four stars, or Ko four stars. Because I absolutely believe there is no unyielding paradigm for four stars. The fact of the matter is, to my great disappointment, there wasn't a single Italian restaurant—I'm gonna leave Marea out of it, because I didn't make a full cycle visit—
AK: What happened with Marea? Did you not have enough time?
BRUNI: No no, but we can get back to that, though. Of those Italian restaurants that were clearly within my timeline, there wasn't a single one that I honestly felt was a four-star restaurant. And I honestly didn't think Ko was a four-star restaurant. And I said in the review—and I said later on and I really believed it—if you are serving a single set menu to twelve people, I think the onus on you to ace every single friggin' dish is really high. And when I ate at Ko, that didn't happen. It may be happening now, and if it's happening now, in my humble opinion, [incoming Times critic] Sam [Sifton] should give them four stars. But if it's not happening now—and I mean acing every single dish—since you're not getting a lot of other coddling there, then they shouldn't get four stars.
AK: I don't know if they'll ever be able to do that.
LS: I wouldn't put it past them.
[Appetizers, including a comped special—the grilled greenmarket verdure—arrive. This was, it should be noted, the only comp of the night.]
III. THE FINAL REVIEWS
AK: Let's come back to Marea.
BRUNI: Regarding Marea, I don't want to say what I thought about a meal there, because I want Sam to make that determination. I did have a lot of thoughts about it, beyond whether it was good or bad, and I would have loved to have reviewed it. It was clear to me that I might be raising Eleven Madison to four stars—I very much wanted to do that on a personal level. I felt very strongly about that. I thought they deserved it. If the editors had said to me, "We really want you to review Marea," I would have done it. I basically said, "Here's my plan for my last four reviews," with the arguments for and against various choices. And I gave the arguments for and against Marea, and they said, "Why don't you skip Marea?" And if I had said, "No no no, I must!" they're respectful enough that they would have said yes. And I'm kind of bummed, because whether it's a two- or three- or four-star restaurant, I'm happy to say I enjoyed my meal there enough that I would have looked forward to going back. Two stars and above basically says, "I'd go back on my own volition."
AK: I heard about a month ago that you had made your first visit. Those guys—they're going to make you every single night.
BRUNI: When I was visiting Marea—that's the kind of restaurant where they're so preoccupied with the star status—whether it's from me or Adam Platt or Sam Sifton—that while I was dining at Marea I went to the restroom at one point and I checked my Blackberry and I had received multiple emails from people saying, "I hear you're at Marea."
BRUNI: It's crazy. That's how invested they are in having a critic in house. That's no knock on them.
AK: What about The Redhead? Why did you want to end with that one?
BRUNI: I liked it a lot. I didn't come out and say this, but I thought that I should end on the kind of place that I would eat at frequently. I didn't want to write some loud, cymbal-crashing last review that said to the world that I thought it was some huge moment that I was leaving. Two months from now, you guys won't even be able to spell my last name. I didn't want to write a last review that had any insinuation of grandiosity. Listen: I wanted to write a typical review. The Redhead's a great restaurant and it is the kind of restaurant that gives me hope about dining in New York. It's accessible; it's affordable; it's the product of a bunch of individuals who really wanted to open up a restaurant. It's a restaurant that's as inspiring and encouraging to the future of dining as Eleven Madison Park is, but in a different way.
IV. RESTAURANT OWNERS & THE ROADS NOT TAKEN
AK: In a recent blog post, you said Del Posto wasn't where it was at previously.
BRUNI: I didn't think so. I had a Christmas Eve dinner there that was so disappointing. Really. I don't think any restaurant is best judged by a holiday evening, but I think that any restaurant that wants to think of itself as four stars, its worst night can only be so bad. And this night was worse than the kind of misfire bad. It's funny—it's only twice that I went out to dinner on Christmas Eve [as a critic].
AK: The other was Le Bernardin?
BRUNI: Yes, the other one Le Bernardin. That one I just remember so well because it was my first time there in my critic capacity that—well, it was my second time, but the first was before I was publicly named—but Eric [Ripert] bounded up to the table.
AK: He probably drove in [to the city that night].
BRUNI: Yeah, he probably did. It was interesting—you can always tell when you're recognized, but he came up to the table and said, "I know who you are. I'm happy you're here. I hope you have a good night." And then I heard from his friends later that he was stressed about whether that was good or was going to haunt him. I would have preferred he didn't do it, because it made me feel a bit awkward, but I wasn't going to be like, "Oh my God! Wrong call!"
BRUNI:I read in Danny Meyer's book that he wondered if The Modern got two stars because there was a server that bounded up to me as I was leaving and said, "I want you to know that I appreciate the amount of attention you pay to Brooklyn. I live in Brooklyn. Blah, blah, blah." It was a strangely long conversation. I didn't appreciate that she did it and I thought it was awfully odd. Danny actually said this in his book if I remember correctly—that he wondered if that was the reason The Modern got two stars. No, that's not the reason! As a restaurant critic, your obligation is to the reader. You can't be settling scores in your reviews. That's just ludicrous.
AK: In your book, you talk about a restaurant where the owner comes up to you and shows you pictures of his kids, telling you how many stars he wants.
BRUNI: That was disgusting. That was the end of my last meal there and I had already decided how many stars it was getting. I didn't name the restaurant, but there's been some interesting—and possibly accurate—speculation.
AK: Some of the places you couldn't even write about, do any of those stick out? Or places that got cut, where you wanted to review it but The Times said no?
BRUNI: No, because—I know it sounds crazy—my editors would never say that. First of all, I was very organized and I gave them my schedule months in advance. They had the opportunity to say, "We don't want this." But they give critics an amazing amount of leeway. More often, they would ask, "Why are you doing this?" And I gave them reasons X, Y and Z about why I felt strongly about it, and they would let me prevail. There were times where I would pull a review at the last minute in ways that were not in a very deadline-conscious way. But it was never about them. It was usually about me.
AK: For example?
BRUNI: The one I remember—which I probably shouldn't talk about—was, I wanted to rereview La Grenouille. And I went and I had a couple of really, really good meals. I put it on the schedule. I thought I would be lovingly refreshing three stars with the explanation that these three stars have a lot to do with the joy of still encountering this idiom of dining. And then, at my last few meals, they just went off a cliff. And it was clear to me—and the reason I'm comfortable talking about this—and if you use this, please include this explanation—is I'm talking about something that happened four years ago. I'm not saying that this is what La Grenouille is like now. It could be totally different now. But my last couple of meals were so disappointing that there was no way I could put my name on anything more than two stars. And you know what? At this point in time, I don't want to be the one who kills the last of its kind—you know? Then you ask yourself, "Am I cheating readers?" But you know what? Readers weren't curious about La Grenouille. I can't remember what we replaced [that review] with, but I remember thinking, "This is something I want to revisit another one or two times," because I was so determined not to be the one who killed La Grenouille.
V. IN THE 718... AND BEYOND
LS: Speaking of Brooklyn and the outer boroughs, that certainly had to be a challenge. In some ways, the line blurred between the $25 and Under and the main review during your tenure. Presumably you had a certain amount of pressure to go to the outer boroughs, but you didn't do it a lot. How did you—
BRUNI: I don't know. I'd be curious—
AK: We can make a chart, if you want. I can get the Eater interns on it.
BRUNI: I'd actually be very curious to see if I neglected the outer boroughs or not.
LS: I wouldn't say neglect...
BRUNI: No, it's fine if you do.
LS: I don't have an opinion on it. My question is more straightforward: How often would you get to the outer boroughs, and did you explore out there as much as you wanted to?
BRUNI: I explored out there more than I wrote about. Because my feeling about a lot of those outer-borough restaurants was that if you were headed for the zero-star situation...
BRUNI: Fail. And that's always one of the really difficult things about being a food critic is, nobody sees all of the things you don't write about. And nobody sees the worst that you see. I ate at so many out-of-the-way, outer-borough restaurants. But I ate in so many terrible restaurants because I wanted to try to discover something. You can never tell people that because they're such out-of-the-way restaurants, off-the-radar restaurants, that if you bring them to people's attention only to say that they're terrible, it seems pointless and borderline immoral.
AK: I think that was Peter [Meehan]'s problem with the $25 and Under [column], because his whole job was to discover these places, and half the time they were terrible.
BRUNI: Let me tell you: Peter Meehan is a hero. He did that job with such incredible diligence. The restaurant critic job has its glamorous side. The $25 and Under job, there's very little of that glamor. I have such enormous respect for the way Peter did that job. He really had to hunt. I mean, Peter's subway mileage...
AK: I took the ferry to Staten Island with him once and had a terrible meal. We drank a lot because it was so bad.
BRUNI: I should have written about it in today's story about taking people out to eat: there's also the emotional aspect to it. You feel really bad when you are taking people out to dinner and it's really bad. Because even though they didn't pay, they still gave you three hours of their time. I was in that situation a lot. But Peter was in that situation a lot more.
LS: You're always so apologetic. I think that's really sweet.
BRUNI: I feel horrible about it. I always did.
VI. OTHER CRITICS... AND THE GOOSE EGG
LS: So how often did you read other critics' reviews? Did you do it before you filed?
BRUNI: I almost always did it before I filed. My particular process was that i would write my rough draft, for lack of a better word, and then I would look at reviews by other critics almost as a sort of note to see if there was anything that I meant to mention in some far corner of my mind. But I never read them to actually change a rating. The curiosity hounded me. I usually knew the number of stars that a critic had given because I'm just a curious person—I couldn't resist. But I seldom read the review before I had written a fairly finished version of my own review. I knew...I'm trying to think of a good example. Well, I didn't know what Adam [Platt] had given Locanda Verde; that was one of those rare instances where I filed before him.
LS: Monkey Bar too, right?
BRUNI: Monkey Bar too. To give you one example, I knew what Adam had given Aldea. I knew that he had given it two stars, which is what I had given it too. But I didn't know what his explanation was. I haven't read Adam's Monkey Bar review.
LS: It's one of his best reviews.
BRUNI: Is it really?
LS: Here's why: he lets you live how bad the food is in the review. I had a friend who said to me, "That review made me sick to my stomach." That's great writing.
AK: With zero star reviews, do you ever feel bad afterward? Is there a sense of like, "Oh, I got them"?
BRUNI: I've only zero-starred restaurants where I felt like I wasn't breaking a mom-and-pop operation. I suppose you could make an argument—I'd have to see a list of them to even remember—like in a case of a Lonesome Dove, that I did help step on someone's dreams. But if I were analyzing my own reviews, I think I gave too few zero stars.
AK: Can you say who you would zero star?
BRUNI: No, I mean there are restaurants that I passed by. There are no restaurants that are one stars that I would make zeros. I think the only way you give one star and two star restaurants their due is by having an ample set of zero stars.
LS: One of the interesting things is that there are different review tiers encapsulated within the zero stars.
BRUNI: I've never understood that.
AK: You didn't give that many Poors.
BRUNI: I only gave a couple of Poors. I don't know if anybody ever noticed this, but I never gave a Fair because I couldn't figure out what the difference between Fair and Satisfactory was. I could never find anybody at the Times to explain to my satisfaction what the difference was. I believe that in the final stretch I was finally able to determine that Fair was better than Satisfactory, but you know what? Two grades of zero are enough.
AK: What were the Poors? Ago, Ninja...
BRUNI: I'd have to check but I think they were Ago, Ninja, Cipriani...not Indochine...
AK: Kobe Club?
BRUNI: No, that was a Satisfactory. Delicatessen was a Satisfactory. Table 8 was a Satisfactory. [Gestures at pasta dish] This is really good by the way.
[Amanda Kludt, Frank Bruni, and several delicious pastas.]
[Waiter comes by.]
WAITER: How's the pasta, everyone? I dream about that one [gesturing at pasta with corn in front of Bruni] in the din of winter.
BRUNI: I think you might need to go to therapy, but thank you for recommending it.
VII. BORN ROUND
LS: Let's talk about your new book, Born Round.
AK: It's really intimate. Were you worried about how it would come across to people?
BRUNI:I think its intimacy is one of the reasons why it was impossible to write and publish this book and remain a critic. You would be telling people too much about yourself. I think one of the newspaper's concerns was will every one of your reviews be seen through a different prism.
LS: That makes total sense. Ruth Reichl has written in the foodie memoir genre—
BRUNI: That's a very different book.
LS: Obviously. And I loved her books.
BRUNI: No, no, I don't mean that in a prideful way. I just mean it's very different.
LS: I mean, how much of it did you see as a transition from what you were writing and how much did you feel like you were doing something that was your own thing?
BRUNI: I reread an enormous number of memoirs before I started writing just to get a lot of ideas in my head and they included a third foodie memoirs, a third addiction memoirs—because I think my book is as much an addiction memoir as it was a foodie memoir—and then a third rough childhood memoir. And also I think it helps to have that material in my head. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I felt that all of the foodie memoirs were an incredibly romantic vision of eating to abandon. That's not true! I don't know Ruth very well, but I'm relatively sure that she's conscious of everything on the table she's eaten. She's not a fat woman. She's not a marathon runner. Ergo, she's conscious of what she eats. One of my good friends who writes the Good Appetite column is Melissa Clark, and I have done enormous amounts of eating with Melissa; she was my travel companion in Italy for a piece that I did in Italy. And Melissa is skinny. She watches her portions. Most of the people I know who are immersed in the world of food do not have these kind of wonder metabolisms. But nobody talks about it. I just thought it would be really useful to say, "Hey, I live this gluttonous life, but it requires a lot of thought and management." I think somebody needed to say it, and I was in a position where I had an overly exaggerated example of this. At a certain point, I felt like I really should write it.
AK: It's also interesting because you're a man. It's good to have a man come out and say, I have these problem too.
AK: Okay, endgame. What are three restaurants that you would keep going back to?
BRUNI: Casa Mono. Peasant. And Ssam Bar. That's three.
AK: What about in your area?
BRUNI: In my neighborhood [the Upper West Side]?... Shake Shack.
AK: Is that your go-to spot when you need a burger?
BRUNI: Yeah. I used to be a little lukewarm on Shake Shack because I like my burger a little thicker. And then, like a bonehead, I realized I like their beef blend. I don't know why it took me so many years—it measures how idiotic I am—but if I just get a double, it solves my problem. I have the patty depth I want.
AK: Ozersky spent half an hour when the place first opened to try to get them to cook the burgers medium rare.
BRUNI: There's something about their beef blend that almost makes the medium rare irrelevant. But that said, I do not get the Burger Joint fixation. It's been so long since I've been there, but I don't have the memory of that experience in my mind where I could explain it in detail, but it just did nothing for me. But you know what's great, and unsurprising because it's also part of the Danny Meyer universe, but Union Square Cafe has a damned good lunchtime burger. Monkey Bar had a very good burger. I mean, it was like $1,000.
[The check arrives. For the record, Eater picked up the bill.]
BRUNI: This is actually really delicious. I just think these tomatoes in here are really beautiful and the amount of heat in this dish is amazing.
LS: Final take on Babbo?
BRUNI: Some of the pastas were amazing.
LS: How would you compare it to your first visit?
BRUNI: That was five and a half years ago. I'm an old man now. They're apples and oranges.
—heroic transcription by Matt Duckor and Gabe Ulla