Mimi Sheraton, the New York Times restaurant critic from 1976 to 1983 and the first woman to hold that role, died yesterday at the age of 97. Sheraton was a pioneer in modern food criticism, wearing disguises to see how restaurants would treat “real” patrons. Below is an excerpt on Sheraton’s legacy from Charlotte Druckman’s Women On Food, first published by Abrams in 2019. It’s an edit of a larger essay titled “Gael and Mimi” — a discussion on Sheraton and Gael Greene, who died in November — which you absolutely should read.
In 1962, Craig Claiborne borrowed the model of the French Michelin Guide and “established an ethical and procedural framework for restaurant reviewing.” Now, there would be a single reviewer assessing each restaurant; his byline would be attached to the work; he’d visit the establishment numerous times, with multiple guests, to get at more items on the menu; ideally, he would pay his own way (courtesy of the publication that employed him); and he would do his very best to stay incognito. A year later, again following the Michelin tradition, Claiborne instituted the star-rating system, which the New York Times continues to use to this day.
...Sheraton had started writing restaurant reviews in the mid-1950s, for a local New York rag called Cue under the pseudonym Martha Martin, and after that, for the city’s Village Voice, using her real name. Born in Brooklyn, she knew she wanted to be a food critic early on and gave up covering decoration and home design, her original beat, to do so.
Once at the Times, she would file her weekly assessment of two venues to run in the Friday Weekend section of the newspaper. That’s where the restaurant column appeared in those days. To a large extent, that placement dictated the format and function of Sheraton’s write-ups; she believed it was her job to provide readers with information and ideas about where to dine, now that the work week was over and they could enjoy a night out. “I made the restaurant critique what I would want to read if I were gonna decide, do I want to go to this place?” she said. “I made it a very, very straight service. It had some humor, it had little cuts, it had digs . . . Every one is what I want to know — I mean, a little bit about the décor, a hint of, for a woman, what she might wear, and then the service — and you know I went many times.” She considered the Claiborne three-visit rule a bare minimum and claims to have eaten at one restaurant twelve times.
But that humor — the little cuts and the digs, and then those particulars about the design of the space and the appropriate dress — was distinctly Sheratonian. The most prominent characteristic of her reviews was the vast amount of knowledge she brought to the job and the enlivened, precise language she used to convey that information. It was service journalism with expertise and voice.
She kept her readers’ means and interests in mind, rounding out her coverage so that she didn’t only endorse expensive places, and she made sure she doled out entertainment and useful advice in equal measure. She considers her inclusion of lower-priced venues, which tended to be those specializing in “ethnic” (her term) food, her standout innovation. “I would try to balance, if one was gonna be fancy,” Sheraton said. “Or if one was coming up bad, and it was an important enough restaurant to be reviewed . . . then I would try to come up with something that was good.”
I’ve often thought Sheraton’s decision to make restaurant reviewing “very, very straight service” was a direct response to and pushback against the “New Journalism” of Wolfe, Mailer, et al. Sheraton is not a storyteller, and when she was reviewing, you didn’t need to be.
Bill Addison believes Sheraton’s commitment to prioritizing the diner’s needs is, in fact, her real legacy. “Mimi’s lasting contribution to restaurant criticism, which is something that I sometimes argue with people over, is that I take pride in being a service journalist,” he said. “It is not always about the heavily contextualized think piece or the cultural analysis. Sometimes it really just is ‘the duck was overcooked and the french fries came out limp and cold.’ I stand gratefully on Mimi’s shoulders in that way, and her work validated my own interest in being that kind of critic, or in exercising those kinds of muscles as critic.” ....
Sheraton didn’t court controversy, but she didn’t avoid it, either. She seems to have recognized its power early on. What she relished was upending expectations in the name of news. She didn’t care how talented or well-respected someone was or about their track record; if the restaurant was a stinker, she was going to tell you, and if everyone was primed to like it, all the more reason to disabuse them. To be fair, she was equally disposed to ruffle feathers with a positive write-up.
Sheraton had unshakable faith in her convictions — and the stars she bestowed, or didn’t. “Mimi Sheraton is magisterial and brooks no argument; I would love to go through life with her sense of authority,” Ligaya Mishan said, and I agree. What we’re responding to is a kind of swagger that, frustratingly enough, we tend to associate with male writers. “I’m not sure if gender plays a role in restaurant criticism — sometimes I think that men tend to write more declaratively, while women give more benefit of the doubt,” Mishan posited. “But then, look at Mimi.”
This excerpt from Women on Food has been edited and condensed.