Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
Have you read the New York Times review of Food Network host Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant yet? Of course you have. Critic Pete Wells’s takedown of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar went viral in less time than it takes to say “Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche.”
And if you have read it, your first thought was likely something like mine: “Hahaha, gasp, oh, hahahahaha.” Because the review is mercilessly funny -- unless, of course, you are Guy Fieri, who dismissed Wells’s assessment as ridiculous and suggested he had “another agenda.”
The review is presented as a string of questions, such as, “Is the entire restaurant a very expensive piece of conceptual art? Is the shapeless, structureless baked alaska that droops and slumps and collapses while you eat it, or don’t eat it, supposed to be a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane? Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?”
Scathing as it is, I’m willing to bet the review is accurate, because as the Globe’s restaurant critic, I have been there. Not literally there, as I plan to never eat at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar if I can help it, but in a similar situation. Reader, we all have. Anyone who patronizes restaurants has, at one point or another, paid good money for slop. And when that happens to a reviewer, the impulse to lay mocking waste to the place can be strong. As one critic friend of mine said, “I bet that was the most fun Pete Wells has ever had writing a review. And I bet it was the fastest review he’s ever written.”
Yes to both. Guy Fieri is low-hanging fruit, the obnoxious host-dude “real foodies” love to hate. His restaurant is an easy target. And the stakes feel relatively low. Fieri is hugely successful. Fans of the show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” are legion. When they go to New York, they will want to eat at the restaurant run by their greasy-spoon-boosting bro-in-arms. A review like this is freeing because Fieri essentially cannot be destroyed. A comparatively bad little bistro would be very unlikely to receive the same treatment.
The response to Wells’s review has been mixed. Some called it unfair and mean. Some called it classist. Some cheered what they saw as a turning point in American restaurant criticism. Many readers revel in rants; others find them facile. What is unquestionable is that with criticism comes responsibility. Here’s one litmus test: After writing a negative review, could the critic look the chef or owner in the eye and defend it? If the answer is yes, even an uncomfortable yes, the business hasn’t been sacrificed on the altar of reader entertainment, for the quick, easy laugh.
Many of the flaws called out by Wells are common occurrences in restaurants, things we’ve all experienced -- hyperbolic and inaccurate menu descriptions, billed ingredients gone missing, dishes ordered then forgotten, poorly paced courses, subpar food. It’s no surprise to find them at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. Did Wells have high expectations of this place going in? I doubt it.
But what, to me, makes his review feel legitimate is the real criticism couched within the funny. Fieri’s show celebrates what Wells calls “no-collar American food.” Fieri’s restaurant, however, brutalizes it. It doesn’t, in the critic’s eyes, respect the cuisine.
Hypocrisy is a dish best not served at all, never mind slathered in Donkey Sauce.
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ContributorsSheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.
Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.
Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.