NY Times Critics Talk Bad Meals, Disguises, Roaches

By James Mulcahy  |  October 20, 2013

A fly in the soup may be the clichéd sin of the restaurant world, but a roach on the wall isn't such a big deal, according to the four NY Times restaurant critics who gathered last night to dish about their dining duties. Former critics Sam Sifton, Ruth Reichl and William Grimes were joined by current critic Pete Wells (who remained incognito, dialing in with audio but not showing his face) for a panel discussion at the Times Center (Frank Bruni was sadly out of town). Moderator Richard L. Berke immediately got down to business, getting good dirt on everything from special treatment to one fine-dining restaurant's recent star demotion. Check out some choice tidbits below:

On disguises:

Reichl, as has been documented in her books, has gone to great lengths to create her disguises, stepping into alternate personalities. She spoke wistfully of one named Brenda, whom she said was “kind of a wild hippie,” who taught her that “you can catch more flies with honey.” It was noted that, at times, her son enjoyed Brenda more than Ruth.

Sifton would stay simple, opting for a gold chain and black T-shirt for some of his restaurant visits. He mentioned that his children hated the subterfuge and “little social lies,” noting that “they may grow up to be jurists.”

On being identified:

Pete Wells’ picture has been widely circulated online, but is that what he actually looks like? “I can make myself look different than that picture,” he said from his hidden enclave. But, he admits that sometimes trying to wear a disguise feels like he is “going through the motions,” but he feels that “sometimes I slip under the radar...I think.”

On sending food back:

The critics were adamant that they wouldn’t send food back. Grimes said “I’d rather just continue eating it and discover the full dimensions of its badness.” Sifton agrees, noting that “there could be the delicious possibility of awfulness.”

On whom and what to bring:

Reichl wouldn't send food back, but she also would have to discard all the food she didn’t eat so the staff didn’t start asking questions. She said that she came equipped with plastic bags, where she would hide the food when the staff’s eyes were averted. A certain type of dining companion helped with this trickery. “Celebrities are really good because they deflect the attention from you shoving food into plastic bags when no one is looking.”

Wells said that overly opinionated companions are a no-no: “I sometimes end up with people who want to impress me by showing me how critical they can be. They end up finding fault with things that are not problems: ‘these salt crystals are really sharp edged.’”

On the Daniel review:

This year Wells filed a shocker review of Daniel, demoting Boulud’s fine-dining eatery from four stars to three. He famously sent a decoy in to see if the average diner received different service than a critic. He gave a few details on his experience, saying that he initially went in unrecognized, but as soon as the restaurant identified him, everything changed. His waiter was “swapped out for a more experienced guy,” and the sommelier offered to open any bottle for him if he wasn't happy with the by-the-glass selection on the list.

The restaurant also offered Wells its famous pressed duck, which usually has to be ordered in advance. He used the decoy because it was clear that he “was not getting normal Joe treatment.”

On roaches:

All of the critics agreed that an occasional critter is inevitable in New York, and promised that they don’t hold it against the venues. Reichl, who used to work in kitchens before she was a critic, notes “roaches happen in every restaurant, I just hope my guests don’t see it,” and Sifton pointed toward the famous story where “a restaurateur looks at a roach and says ‘that’s not mine.’

Wells summed the bug issue up best, saying it's “the restaurant reviewing equivalent of ‘it's not the crime, it’s the coverup.’ It’s how they handle the roach.”