Last week, New York Times critic Pete Wells knocked Daniel down from four stars to three. In the piece, Wells explained that during the review process he had arranged for a colleague to dine at the restaurant at the same time. That plan, according to the critic, ended up revealing a discrepancy between the level of service given to Wells and the unidentified colleague — one that merited a demotion. "I knew my servers were trying to make my night one I'd recall with a smile," Wells wrote. "And I wished everyone could be so lucky."
The review sparked a debate on anonymity, VIP treatment, and how restaurants should deal with critics they spot dining at their restaurants. It's not surprising that a lot of industry folks are keeping quiet on the matter, but here, now, chefs and restaurateurs John Fraser (Dovetail), Alex Stupak (Empellon Cocina and Empellon Taqueria), Amanda Cohen (Dirt Candy), and Drew Nieporent talk about their policies toward VIPs and critics. There's also a discussion with former Times critic Mimi Sheraton about her experiences being spotted at restaurants during reviews, anonymity, and how she feels restaurants should handle the situation when a critic walks in the door.
Alex StupakRestaurants: Empellon Taqueria and Empellon Cocina
What did you think of the Daniel review?
All I can do is talk about what our policies are. It's simple: friends, family, and industry get extra stuff from us. They just do. In terms of food critics, that's a very different type of VIP. At the end of the day, if you are aware that a critic is in your restaurant, one of the big challenges is to act like you don't know.
How do you manage that?
No matter how good the restaurant is, there is always going to be a better piece of bass that you should sautée off for a food critic, for example. There's always that one piece you should send out, and there's nothing wrong with that. You should pick your best for the critic. The point is that the critic, the anonymous critic, should get the same treatment of anyone walking in the door.They're trying to look out for the consumer.
Put it this way: from my experience, if you try to change your M.O. when that person walks in, it glares. They catch it. Then it's just a matter of whether they will write about that or not. At Cocina, we try to send what's ordered at the beginning together, but then that changes as the meal progresses. If we tried to bring everything out at the same time for the whole meal, it would be obvious. We'd be full of shit.
Part of the restaurant game is repetition. Doing the same thing every day at the same level is really important, and when you try to throw an audible at your service staff, it becomes really clear to a diner.
I can't really comment on the Daniel story, since I've had incredible meals there. Only Pete Wells or perhaps the restaurant can know if he got extra special service.
But in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with putting a critic, if you spot him or her, in the section with your best server. The only thing that would be messed up would be, for instance, giving the critic an 8 ounce portion when everyone else's is 4.
John FraserRestaurant: Dovetail
How do you deal with critics who come into the restaurant?
If and when we spot a critic, the goal is to give them the best version of ourselves. When it comes to friends and industry people, I want to really take care of the people I care about. Some of those people have become regular customers, and we style out people out in different ways. Some people like certain things or are anxious to see what we're working on, so we use them as guinea pigs.
You don't experiment with critics, I don't think. You play to your strengths and try to give them a balanced look at who you really are for anyone who walks in the door.
Does it make a difference if you spot the critic?
I think it only makes a difference in terms of our peace of mind. I say that honestly. In a place with fewer seats, it might matter, since you can shift the way that person is eating or who is cooking the food. But once you get over the 50-seat mark, the machine is happening, and the critic is going to probably get the same experience. It's more about being able to know if you did the best you possibly could when you knew that person was there.
Mimi SheratonFormer New York Times Restaurant Critic
What was your reaction to the Daniel review?
Some critics, especially European ones, will argue that anonymity doesn't matter, since there isn't much a restaurant can change for a critic. I've always said that anyone who says that is a fool or a liar. There's a lot that can be done with food and service. I saw it so many times.
What are some experiences you had as a critic that fall into a similar category as Wells'?
I can remember being in Le Cirque in my early days, when they didn't know me, and seeing how regulars were shown the first truffles of the season and given the nicest cuts of fish. Nobody came near us with that. People were even rude at several places, like at Regine's.
They can do so much once they spot you. The difference is so marked in terms of the tone of the service. But I think they should be as nice to everyone.
But I don't think you can blame a restaurant for wanting to impress a critic if they spot one. How would you like to see restaurants do that dance, where they manage to spot the critic but don't make it obvious or overdo it?
It's very, very hard. There were times I thought I was recognized because of sudden swarms of help that made it seem like they were about to do open heart surgery or because there were many, many glances to the table. But I've also felt that I was recognized in cases where I actually wasn't! There was a bit of paranoia in it, too.
But I thought Pete's solution was a very effective one. One thing I used to do is have people I was dining with arrive first and get to the table first, to see if we'd get the table we were promised. I'd also ask them to get an appetizer before my arrival.
Did it work?
Yes. Once I went to the Four Seasons and my friends had already ordered smoked salmon before I arrived. As I walked in, they had brought out the gueridon to serve it. At the time, there was a dried out piece about to be cut, but when they saw me, they rolled it away and brought out a fresh one.
Do you think those types of practices are still as common today?
How do you feel about regulars, friends, or industry people getting preferential treatment?
I'll tell you something: I don't know if that is unavoidable. If they know you, I think there would be a certain familiarity that might not exist with someone else on a Saturday night. That doesn't mean that the restaurant shouldn't be kind, courteous, and offer that person everything the regular is getting.
It would be really difficult to spot a critic and then avoid going all-in for them, but you have to be equally kind to everyone else.
And in the highest echelon of restaurants, there should be no such thing as a bad table.
Drew NieporentRestaurants: Myriad Restaurant Group
What was your reaction to the Daniel review?
Obviously, I've known Daniel for thirty years, and my first reaction was that it was difficult. He's established, he's worked very hard, and he's set the bar very high for himself. I think he's very deserving of his four stars. At the same time, I think a critic has a job to do. It's hard to dispute someone else's experience — they were there and you weren't. The point is that everyone's experience is going to be different to some degree. The way a restaurant works best is when things are spontaneous and not everything is scripted or choreographed.
Would it be a stretch then to say you feel Wells was off?
I'm not going to go into the territory of telling you that I don't agree with what he said. I think a critic has a role. But I do think that it's an awfully high standard to think that you're only as good as your last meal, which seems applicable here. That's tough. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it's Daniel Boulud. He's done more for the industry and charity. At the end of the day, I have no idea what the point is of reviewing a restaurant like that and taking a star away.
At some point, you have to discuss the relevance of the star system in and of itself. I'd prefer to read that article and come out with my own judgments, because as is, the whole focus becomes the demotion. It's negative, and that's pretty unfair after so many years of working your butt off.
But what about writing for the general consumer, the person who only might have a chance to eat at Daniel once and not be able to give the place the benefit of the doubt?
I have no problem with that. This is a focus of "A Matter of Taste," this cat and mouse game that has always existed. On one level, it's like, how stupid are we supposed to be when we're trying to run a business and somebody comes in who is going to write about us? Are you just supposed to be stupid and pretend you have no idea that they're there? But you do have to try to respect the wish to be anonymous.
Well, what's your policy on handling critics who walk in the door?
You don't completely pretend that they're not there. This is the moment of truth. We're in an industry that can't afford to advertise, and which the general public doesn't really want to advertise itself. They believe in the editorial. You obviously care about that. It's the only way we can go forward and market ourselves. It's a gauntlet, man, so we have to be clued into it.
The one thing you don't do is anything different for a critic. I say that, but I have been guilty of it at times over the years.
Have they noticed?
No, but I do. I went over to a table once to fold up a napkin after a critic had gotten up from the table. Turns out they had chewed up a piece of kidney, spit it out, and put it in the napkin. The thing went flying across the room.
So you definitely can't overdo it for a critic?
There are so many stupid things that have been done in the name of pleasing the critic, but if you read enough critique, you notice they really don't want that. Bottom line: I want to treat every single person like I would like to be treated. Does that happen every time? Of course not. There are going to be situations where people fall between the cracks. But you strive for professional, expeditious, proper service. Everyone, including critics, falls into that. At the end of the day, the food is going to be the food.
That being said, if my mother comes in or my friends are there, that should have no bearing on another table. If another table questions it, which I welcome, it's easy to just say, "It's my mother!"
I would be lying if I said the staff doesn't freak out when a critic comes in, but you just can't overdo it. You have to keep what I just said about treating everyone well in mind.
I will say, however, that the critic has an obligation to get it right. A lot of people say that it's just for the consumer, but it's also about the restaurant and the industry. Without us, there is nothing to write about. There is no industry. I've had this argument with Ruth Reichl — she says she is writing for the readers. But I happen to be a reader, too. I wear two hats.
In the aftermath of the review, Wells said that he may not dine totally anonymously, but that he at least dines "pseudonymously." Do you think there's value in that?
I think there is. If they feel that that's the best way to assess a place accurately and honestly, then definitely.
Amanda CohenRestaurant: Dirt Candy
What was your reaction to the Daniel review?
Part of me was sad. It's always a bummer to see a restaurant lose a star, especially one that's a landmark like Daniel. But part of me was also a little surprised: I was hoping that Pete Wells sent in secret diners everywhere he reviewed, not just to Daniel. To me, that would make a lot of sense and it's not like the New York Times can't afford it. For me, it doesn't matter. Clearly I am incapable of recognizing the guy, but a lot of other restaurateurs are way more savvy than I am, and he gets spotted all over the place.
You say you can't spot him, but what's your general policy on serving critics who come in?
I live by an unwritten law: DO NOT GIVE CRITICS FREE THINGS. Unless your restaurant generally sends free things out to its guests all the time for no real reason, do not single critics out and try to woo them with free dishes. Most of them are smart enough to know when they're being played, so then you just look like an amateur who's slobbering all over them. And if they don't know they're being played, they probably won't write about the free dishes anyway. It's a ham-handed thing to do and it doesn't do you, or your restaurant, any favors.
Is it wrong for certain guests to get extra courses and slightly more involved service, or is it part of the deal?
I think it is part of the deal. If you eat at Dirt Candy three times, I consider you a regular and then I do all kinds of things for you. You don't get better food (everyone gets better food) but I do try to get you in when I can, call or email if there's a reservation suddenly available, send out free stuff, drive your enemies before me and hear the lamentations of their women. It all depends on the diner. Not only do I depend on repeat business to stay alive, but I'm really grateful to people who go out of their way to support Dirt Candy. They feel like family to me.
At Dirt Candy, when regulars or friends of the house come in, how do you make it so that you make them feel special without offending people who might not get the same experience?
Dirt Candy excels at offending people in all kinds of situations, but in regard to regulars versus what we like to call "normals" it is a delicate tap dance. There was one night when every single person in the restaurant was a regular except for a lone two-top. I'm so happy to see my regulars, and was so excited to have a dining room full of them, that I didn't even notice that free food was going out to all the other tables except for these two people. You could sort of tell that they were just getting more and more beat down as the night went on as one free thing after another landed at the table to their left, then their right, then in front of them. Afterwards they emailed me what was, basically, a suicide note. I made it right with them, but it's a constant danger, and one I do a terrible job at avoiding.