Everyone’s suspicions were just confirmed: Some restaurants save the best food for critics. Longtime Union Square Cafe line cook Armen Stevens wrote an essay for Grub Street that explores how USC approaches critics, in which he revealed that the kitchen reserved the best parts of each dish for the critics.
Danny Meyer’s baby, Union Square Cafe, recently reopened in its new location a tad further north, and so the critic march restarted, with Eater’s Ryan Sutton, the Times’ Pete Wells, and NY mag’s Adam Platt all filing reviews.
Of the experience, Stevens writes:
So every night, at 5:15, just before dinner, Chef would call a meeting to pump up the kitchen crew and to visit the cooks’ stations to check the quality of the mise en place, the prepped ingredients and tools we use during service. More specifically, Chef wanted to know which portion we had set aside for Wells. Every night, we would all reserve the finest portion of every single component of a dish just in case Pete — “Don Pedro,” as some of us in the kitchen called him — graced us with his presence.
For every evening Wells didn’t show, those perfect ingredients would just go to some other lucky table later at night. But when he did eventually turn up, all hell broke loose. “I felt like one of those backup players in the tearjerker sports movies who gets put in for the big game because the star is hurt. I was Rudy, and this fritto misto was my moment,” Stevens wrote.
It paid off, since Wells gave the restaurant three stars and called himself a fritto misto fanboy. For everyone else, there’s always hope to get discarded critic leftovers.
This experience may be true for Union Square Cafe, but Sutton disagrees, saying he doesn’t believe he’s often recognized, and if he is, he can’t tell that he’s getting the best cuts. And nonetheless, restaurants are not all getting positive reviews, so the practice might be moot.