A Random Thought on Restaurant Criticism

January 14, 2016

Given all the recent noise about a restaurant review (and you know which one I’m talking about), I thought I’d post this little bit from Garlic and Sapphires.

To put it in context, this conversation takes place in the office of the Editor of The New York Times, Max Frankel in the spring of 1993. At the time I was the restaurant critic of The Los Angeles Times, and Max and his deputy, Joe Lelyveld had invited me into their office. The current critic was leaving the job and Max had just asked what I thought of their restaurant section. In an act of madness I told the editors of the most powerful paper in the world that they were doing things wrong.

“Your reviews,” I said, “are very useful guides for the people who actually eat in the restaurants you review. But how many of your readers will go to Lutece this year? A thousand? That leave out more than a million readers. And at a time when people are more interested in food and restaurants than they have ever been in the history of this country, that’s a shame.  You shouldn’t be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the people who wish they could.”

I remember Joe looking at Max over my head and saying, “This is interesting. And you know, we’ve heard this argument before. Only it was about books. What she’s really saying is that we’ve been selling restaurants, and that isn’t our business. We should be selling newspapers.”

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  • Paula Thomas says:

    I read the restaurant review in question this morning and almost fell out of my chair. Yikes! But it’s true what you say here, my husband and I have never been for two reasons, one we don’t like in NY city, two we’ll have to save up to go and enjoy “the meal of a life time.” So to read a review that tells you to put your money else where because “X restaurant is one of the worst food deals in NY city” certainly is welcomed and appreciated.

  • Alexis says:

    I do not know which review you are referring to in this case. Could you please email me with the details?

    Kind Regards,


  • CarolynS says:

    You spoiled reading restaurant reviews for me – no one has ever come close to your wonderful reviews that led me to discover places in NY where I had such great meals. Thank you. I still smile imagining your disguises. You nailed it when you wrote about eating at a certain 5 star restaurant as a nobody (like the rest of us) and then showing up as the NY Times restaurant critic. Brilliant. So, you’ve done LA and NY. Maybe it’s time for you to think about living in San Francisco for a while?

  • Stefanie says:

    For a Christmas gift, I bid in a charity auction for luncheon for 2 at said restaurant – and paid a boatload. I’m not sure in this case i wanted to be “pre” disappointed – i usually prefer to be disappointed in the moment.

  • Robin Keuneke says:

    On restaurant reviews: your beautifully expressed passage, from Garlic and Sapphires resonated , when I first read it years ago and is still meaningful. Thanks for your wonderful work!However, I too don’t know which review your referring to, so could you let me know?

  • Rayna says:

    The review was Pete Wells’ review of Per Se in the NYT Wednesday, 1/13/16. Good for him! But yes, his is speaking to the 1%. Ruth, your reviews and your books were pure joy!

  • Marjory says:

    Best response I’ve read yet to the Per Se upset (although, the reader responses to Wells’ article are amusing, varied and sometimes insightful – worth scanning). Speaking of restaurant reviews, thanks to reading this sweet interview with the owners of Yuca’s http://www.lataco.com/interview-with-dora-and-socorro-herrera-owners-of-yucas/ I came upon your March 16, 1986 LA Times review of the wonderful stand (my brother lives in East LA and Yuca’s is always a stop when I visit). Cheers to reviews like these! And long live the conchinita pibil. PS Been enjoying your cookbook tremendously (who knew the plum torte could actually be improved! Love your remark on wax paper that closes the PB&J entry) and the conchinita pibil and perfect black beans are up next.

  • Natalie Herman says:

    This is totally irrelevant to the topic, but I am currently rereading Garlic and Sapphires. In fact, it is sitting next to me on the table as I write this. I have your other books as well and am a big fan of your work. Thank you for bringing such enjoyment to your readers.

  • RT says:

    Hi, Ruth,

    My mother read your reviews and brought us to those Vietnamese outposts on Baxter Street and to Kang Suh (in its heydey).

    We were lucky to have experienced those foods outside of our sheltered, rural, Jerseyan life.

    Thank you for your work!

    – RT

  • Judi Suttles says:

    Love love love Yuca’s! My first visit happened to be on Mama’ birthday. The tacos, tamales, beans were all amazing. It’s no wonder we went back for more the next day.

  • Moe says:

    I listened to your Garlic and Sapphires book on tape/computer. I was glued to it and played it all the way through without stopping. You are a true professional and I agree to what you told the NY Time’s Mr. Frankel et al. Sell papers not restaurants. And how I miss Gourmet Magazine.

  • Barbara says:

    Dave Davies is interviewing Pete Wells on today’s Fresh Air on NPR. Great interview with good explanations. I think that he learned a lot from Ruth!

  • Helen says:

    Hooray! I am delighted that you are coming back to Austin! We have bunches of new dishes waiting for you. Blessings on your intensive travels…