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What It Was Like to Be the Restaurant Critic for The New York Times

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Illustration by Tim Foley

Tarrytown resident Bryan Miller dishes on his decade-long gig as the New York publication’s go-to source for dining in the city.

In the first week of May, 1993, I paid a visit to an Italian restaurant in Manhattan’s gentrifying Tribeca neighborhood called Rosemarie’s. It was fine, though not memorable, except for the fact it was the 5,123rd meal I had evaluated in nearly 10 years as the restaurant critic for The New York Times. And the last. As such, I held the newspaper’s land speed record for both length of tenure and the number of reviews written — the “world’s greatest job” as they say. If you care to know why I put down the fork on that particular day, you’ll have to read a little about what came before.

What came before was an unlikely start as a news reporter: The Journal Inquirer (Connecticut), the Associated Press (Texas and Oklahoma), The Providence Journal (Rhode Island), and Connecticut Magazine. At the time, in the early 1980s, the news business was in a process of compartmentalization. Newspapers and magazines saw the future in stand-alone sections covering topics like business, home design, travel, sports, food, and more. Cable television was succeeding at it — ESPN, CNN, etc. — although no one at the time could imagine 1,000 niche channels featuring everything from sloths playing cards to rescuing cats from trees. It did not take long for me to recognize that any of these newspaper beats could be equally rewarding, and maybe easier, than what I was doing at the time. Food sounded the most cushy.

I knew my way around the kitchen, more or less, having taken cooking courses at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, part of Johnson and Wales University in Providence, RI. To further groom myself as an alimentary authority, I signed on for a year-long apprenticeship at an acclaimed bistro in Connecticut called Restaurant du Village (now closed). This impressed upon me the belief that all aspiring restaurant critics should spend time toiling in a professional kitchen, to get a worm’s eye view of the apple, so to speak. You don’t need to be a chef, but you should be familiar with the parts under the hood, so when something breaks down you know where to look. (For example: Untrained critics may lash out at the service staff for delays, when in fact, the fault is in the kitchen.)

In some ways, being The Times’ critic was not functionally different from my previous posts — that is, if you disregard bribe attempts, physical threats (resulting in NYPD bodyguards), photographer stalkings, lawsuits, food poisoning (presumably accidental), and disguises (once).

Armed with a relatively thin resume seasoned with plausible exaggerations, I managed to talk my way into the restaurant critic’s job at Connecticut Magazine, where I was a news reporter, and later at The Hartford Courant’s Sunday magazine, Northeast. (In 1981, food critics were in short supply.)

Right off, I adopted three rules of the road:

  1. I wielded a long and lethal sword. Be demanding but fair — these are people’s livelihoods you are messing with.
  2. Be specific. If you are critical of the food, explain precisely why it is substandard. It is not fair to the chef to simply declaim you don’t like it.
  3. Never go to restaurants when you are bored, tired, or not hungry. Your readers dine out enthusiastically and hoping for the best. So should you.

Two years and (only) five pounds later, I was living in Manhattan, writing about food for The Times, with no burning desire to assume the high-profile restaurant column. My wife, Mireille, and I had a comfortable life, three-quarters of our time in the city maximizing the intake of calories, the rest at our farmhouse in Rhinebeck, where I wrote. But life happens: The critic retired. The job was offered to me. I said no thank you. Twice. The third time around, my editor — and I am not making this up — opened a third-floor office window and threatened, if I dared to decline again, an airborne exit. Reluctantly, I consented.

When I took over the column there was only one other weekly restaurant critic in New York City — the endlessly entertaining Gael Greene at New York Magazine, which had a fraction of The Times’ readership. With little competition, my weekly verdicts were near-canonical. On Thursday evenings — the column appeared on Fridays at the time — a cluster of restaurant owners assembled in the paper’s lobby waiting for the first edition to arrive — literally, hot off the presses. This degree of power was not ideal, for me nor my readers. Competition keeps one sharp and humble, and I always kept this in mind.

In some ways, being The Times’ critic was not functionally different from my previous posts — that is, if you disregard bribe attempts, physical threats (resulting in NYPD bodyguards), photographer stalking, lawsuits, food poisoning (presumably accidental), and disguises (once). This was the big time and millions of dollars were on the line. I won few popularity contests. As a British reviewer once observed, “Asking a restaurateur what he thinks of food critics is like asking a lamp post its opinion of dogs.”

Nonetheless, it was an ideal time to launch a restaurant writing career. The so-called American Food Revolution was beginning to sizzle. Young American cooks, many trained in France (and subsidized by their parents), were returning home, not to mimic what they had learned overseas, but rather to forge a new hybrid cuisine that showed off American foods and wines in ways never imagined. Restaurant critics were tasked with sorting it all out. At the same time, baby boomers were traveling overseas in unprecedented numbers, returning with more-inquisitive palates. Seemingly overnight, eating out evolved from mostly a maintenance function to a source of entertainment.

Miller at Pershing Square in Midtown Manhattan. This was not one of the 5,123 meals he ate while a critic at The New York Times. Photo courtesy of Bryan Miller

Miller at Pershing Square in Midtown Manhattan. This was not one of the 5,123 meals he ate while a critic at The New York Times. Photo courtesy of Bryan Miller

These new restaurants resisted easy designations like American, Japanese, Spanish, and Greek. They were now “California,” “Asian-French,” “North African,” “Mediterranean,” “Indian-American,” and, some years later, the catch-all “fusion.” How does one rate something like this: “fresh crabmeat and Swiss chard enveloped in sheets of homemade pasta over a yellow tomato sauce with reduced vegetable bouillon and carrot juice, seasoned with cardamom, all bound with butter” (Lafayette, NYC)? I took a cue from Duke Ellington who, when asked to define great music, replied: “If it sounds good, it is good.” Likewise: “If it tastes good, it is good.”

The Times employs a four-star rating system, plus the embarrassing “satisfactory” and the dunce hat “poor.” My ratings were calculated roughly as 75 percent for food and wine, and 25 percent for service and ambiance. While it was desirable to remain anonymous on the job, at times I was recognized, which could occasion a Three Stooges fire drill in the kitchen. In the dining room, I might be encircled by a platoon of waiters tendering every service short of a neck massage.

A common assertion about restaurant critics is that we can make or break a restaurant with the swipe of a pen. This is not entirely true. As my predecessor Mimi Sheraton once observed: “Negative reviews do not close restaurants. Bad food does. We just notice.” And think about your favorite place. Would you stop going just because a writer doesn’t like it?

Readers often asked if I ever resorted to wearing disguises. No. Well, once, when I was banned from a restaurant, but that’s a long story. There was no need for silly camouflage.

Mireille and I dined out three times with two to three guests, which allowed me to sample some 40 dishes. Often there was another visit to retest the food or service. On several occasions, as with the four-star French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, I visited nine times. A restaurant cannot fake that. We ate out so often, I sometimes ran out of dining recruits and resorted to trolling the newsroom in search of idle and undernourished reporters.

For 10 years, we lived in a shoe-box sized apartment in Midtown. We never turned on the stove. Eating at home would be like dozing on guard duty.

It goes without saying that assessing restaurants on this level was expensive and, remarkably, I enjoyed an unlimited expense account. This was the 1980s and 1990s, and the newspaper industry was at its peak of puissance and profitability before being disemboweled by the internet. I spent in the vicinity of $125,000 a year, not counting domestic and international travel.

With such an intense urban schedule, I was always looking for excuses to spend more time in Dutchess County. One of my more diverting assignments was called “Easy Diner’s Road Map to the Hudson Valley.” On my motorcycle I rumbled up to 10 regional restaurants, among them: Le Petit Bistro and The Tavern at The Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck; The Arch in Brewster; Vintage Café in Beacon (now closed); Allyn’s Restaurant and Café, in Millbrook (now closed); Xaviar’s in Piermont (now closed); and Café Tamayo in Saugerties (now closed). Aside from rating the food I made observations about the parking lots (gravel bad; asphalt good), helmet check availability, and likelihood of meeting other bikers in the dining room.

Now why did I take the critic’s exit ramp? One might presume it was dining fatigue. That was not the case. There were several reasons, and among them writer fatigue. By this I mean, unlike theater criticism and movie criticism and book criticism, in which writers can draw on the breadth of the human experience, restaurant writing is more confined. There are only so many ways you can describe a roast chicken. I ran out of metaphors and needed to replenish the tank.

As for Rosemarie’s restaurant, I gave it two stars.