NY Times v. Guy Fieri – The News Value of a Brutal Review

You may have heard that last week New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells absolutely savaged Food Network host Guy Fieri’s new Times Square restaurant Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. The review, written entirely as a series of questions, suggests that the celebrity chef has no idea what the restaurant bearing his name is serving.  Wells writes:

GUY FIERI, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? … Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex?  … 

Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are? If you hadn’t come up with the recipe yourself, would you ever guess that the shiny tissue of breading that exudes grease onto the plate contains either pretzels or smoked almonds? Did you discern any buttermilk or brine in the white meat, or did you think it tasted like chewy air?

Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?

Now I will confess that I enjoy Guy’s show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and in fact I have eaten at a couple of the places he’s featured on the show and enjoyed them immensely – primarily because they are modest-sized, locally owned joints. (Laurer-Krauts is right outside of Denver, Colorado and serves an amazing hamburger/cabbage/sauerkraut roll; Red Iguana in Salt Lake City has some of the most interesting Mexican food I’ve ever tried.) And I suspect that I really wouldn’t be that enthused about Guy’s New York restaurant because it sounds suspiciously like the Hard Rock Cafe type places I try to avoid on principle.

But did Mr. Fieri’s restaurant really deserve that brutal drubbing Wells delivered?

Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor (that reads ombudsman), says that while the review was harsh, it also was appropriate:

The review is very mean and very funny and, of course, completely within the purview of the restaurant critic who, like all critics, has all the pleasure and all the pain that comes with the freedom to speak his mind.

She goes on to note that Wells will not be making a habit of such scathing reviews, quoting him as saying, “Negative reviews should be done sparingly.”

Left unsaid is what’s obvious: When you must write a negative review, make it memorable.

Did Mr. Wells accomplish that? No question.

The reaction to the review has been all over the place.

  • Time magazine’s TV critic James Poniewozik has a fun analysis of the review, noting that it’s enjoyable to read and may well be an accurate analysis of the food. He also makes the interesting point that Triple D (as Guy’s show is known) is more an “eating” show than a “cooking” show.
  • The New Yorker (one of my favorite weekly reads) sent a couple of staffers to Guy’s restaurant to see how bad things really are.  Hannah Goldfield and Amelia Lester ask their own question: “How bad can a highly caloric meal in an air-conditioned environment really be?”  Their conclusion is that it was a nice place for lunch with some hits and some misses, and that they might go back again.
  • NPR’s Scott Simon asks what I think is the key question– Why did Pete Wells bother trashing Fieri’s restaurant when it became clear the food was neither good nor interesting?Why doesn’t a critic hop the subway and find some unheralded spot in Queens or Staten Island that’s worth the attention?I asked Pete Wells: When you could tell that the food was so bad, why didn’t you just leave?”I’m struggling to come up with an interesting answer to your question,” he quickly wrote back. “I get paid to eat bad food.”

I think that this highlights the key issue in my mind.  Wells is not paid to eat bad food.  He’s paid to help his readers find interesting places to eat and avoid bad or boring places.  And trashing a theme park of restaurant by a TV host does little to help the interested diner.  The only good reason to do the review is to show how scathing and clever the writer can be.  And Wells certainly accomplished that.

And finally:

This entry was posted in Chapter 6, JMC 406 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to NY Times v. Guy Fieri – The News Value of a Brutal Review

  1. Bob Britten says:

    My thoughts (ported from Facebook):

    Regarding your last graf, consider the philosophy behind punitive damages: The point is not to compensate the victim, it’s to punish the offender and push others to think long and hard about committing similar acts. If he had written “It’s bad. Don’t eat there,” it would have informed far fewer (some of whom may now pay a visit out of gastro-irony).

    I generally agree with the philosophy that reviewers should explain what may be worth experiencing about the thing they review rather than simply dump snark on a thing (note, however, that this is not synonymous with “critics should only say nice things!” crap deserves to be called crap, but if it’s crap that was at least trying for something, it ought to also be assessed on how well it attains that goal). I believe an exception is merited in this case because of how Fieri has made his name/brand synonymous with “places you should eat.” This is not merely a hit piece – it’s taking to task lazy restauranting from someone who’s made a career out of appearing to know better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *