Times’ New Food Critic Biff Grimes Says One Star Really Means ‘Good’

New York Times restaurant critic William (Biff) Grimes has an opinion about praise. “Praise, when it’s doled out indiscriminately, is not praise at all,” Mr. Grimes told The Observer . “It’s just mood music.”

Judging from the blackened mood of the city’s culinary elite, Mr. Grimes is in no danger of being mistaken for the Love Unlimited Orchestraofrestaurant criticism.Infive months as TheTimes ‘toptastebud, the 49-year-old Houston-born reviewer with a Ph.D. in comparative literature has left little doubt that, as long as he’swritingthereviews, NewYork’sculinary constellations will be composed of fewer stars.

His detractors complain that Mr. Grimes is killing the chefs of New York. As one chef said, “It’s a little uneasy out there in restaurateur world.”

In June, Mr. Grimes gave three stars to Daniel Boulud’s $10 million reincarnation of Restaurant Daniel, compared to the four stars that Mr. Boulud had been given by Mr. Grimes’ predecessor in the job, Ruth Reichl. On Oct. 20, Mr. Grimes demotedCharlie Palmer’sAureole down to two stars from the three that The Times ‘ Bryan Miller gave Mr. Palmer in 1991. In between, Mr. Grimes has awarded a flurry of one-star reviews-which have long represented mediocrityinthis town-to such luminaries as restaurateur Drew Nieporent and MichaelLomonaco, chef of Wild Blue and Windows on the World.

Tradition dictates that those who are badly reviewed by The Times should hold their tongues. Café des Artistes owner George Lang said, “Whether the clay pitcher hits the rock or the rock hits the clay pitcher, it is always the clay pitcher that is going to break.”

Still, some restaurateurs have decided they want to be heard.

“I think it’s unfortunate that someone like Bill Grimes is allowed to use The New York Times as a vehicle for his own personal agenda,” said Mr. Palmer, who claimed that The Times ‘ review of Aureole “is not a critique of the restaurant. It’s a critique of our success with Zagat.” He added: “My clientele at Aureole is a very educated group, and they dine in the best restaurants in the world. Probably 75 percent know more about food and wine than Bill Grimes will ever know.”

Mr. Nieporent, co-owner of Nobu, Montrachet and TriBeCa Grill, said, “I believe in restaurant critics and reviewers. I believe in that system. But in order for it to work there cannot be an adversarial relationship between the critic and the restaurants he reviews. I’m sure he’s a nice guy and he doesn’t particularly want to hurt anybody, but unfortunately a pattern has already begun where he’s trying to prove something. This is not about a chef’s or a restaurateur’s ego. This is our livelihood.”

Mr. Grimes’ one-star review of Mr. Nieporent’s Berkeley Bar and Grill prompted Mr. Nieporent to fire off a letter to Times executiveeditorJoseph Lelyveld,butMr.Grimes said he was unaware of the letter.Hesaidhehasn’t “heard a peep”fromthe restaurant world about his reviewing. Although he would not grant a full interview to The Observer because,hesaid,hedidn’t want to look like “a self-promotingasshole,”Mr. Grimes did agree to explain hisinterpretationofthe Times restaurant star system and to respond to comments made about him.

“Ruth hated the star system and was on record as not believing in it and therefore did an end run around it,” Mr. Grimes said of Ms. Reichl,noweditorof Gourmet magazine.”Basically, one star had been abolished, and all sorts of restaurants were getting two stars, and the whole thing became sort of meaningless.”

Mr. Grimes said one of his New Year’s resolutions was “to reinstate a valid star system in which the stars meant what they said and said what they meant. The one star’s purpose in life is to reward the good, solid neighborhood restaurant that’s operating at a high level, but is never going to be a Daniel.” At one point in the conversation, he characterized himself as “administering tough love.”

Even those who agree with Mr. Grimes said his attempt to change the perceptions of a one-star Times review has its price. “There’s going to be a lot of sacrifices to the cause,” said one restaurant critic. “He’s tied a lot of restaurants to the front of his tank. They’re the shock troops.”

Some restaurateurs argue that Mr. Grimes will turn off readers who skim the review looking for excellence. “If he’s going to reorient the system to a one-star system, the irony for me is that you’re not raising the bar, you’re lowering it,” said Mr. Nieporent. “Because nobody’s going to read the piece, ergo nobody’s going to go [to one-star restaurants]. You’re doing a disservice to The Times and the restaurant industry.”

“It doesn’t benefit the industry at all to have grade inflation,” responded Mr. Grimes, adding, “The reviewer exists not to serve the restaurants or the restaurant owners, but the much larger population of readers.”

Of the 23 restaurants that he has reviewed since May, Mr. Grimes has awarded one star to 11 of them, including Della Femina and Maison. Two restaurants, Colina, in the ABC Carpet building, and Roy Yamaguchi’s Roy’s New York, have received no-star, “satisfactory” reviews. Six restaurants have been given two stars. Three restaurants have gotten three stars: Daniel, Cello and Union Square Cafe. The vinegary sting of Mr. Grimes’ new standards was compounded when he gave his sole four-star review to Bouley Bakery. The city’s culinary hierarchy generally agrees that David Bouley’s osso buco-size ego does not need further stroking. If Mr. Grimes had been trying to piss off the city’s culinary mafia, he couldn’t have picked a better chef.

Of Ms. Reichl’s first 23 reviews in late 1993 and early 1994, 15 were awarded two stars. Only three came away with one-star reviews, and none were given no stars. Lespinasse got four.

“I cared much more about writing the column than about making the star system,” said Ms. Reichl. She said The Times chose Mr. Grimes because the newspaper “wanted someone who would be very different than me.”

“I can empathize with him. It’s a tough job,” said Mr. Miller. “Once you put that hat on, you assume near-papal authority. It’s as daunting as it is dangerous.”

But Mr. Grimes doesn’t seem very daunted. “This guy hurls thunderbolts from 43rd Street,” said one restaurant reviewer, who noted that Mr. Grimes has transformed himself from a Times food section writer into a critic “with amazing speed and a sense of authority. There’s no sense of hesitation with this guy. Not one doubt ever creeps into a sentence.”

Many in the business interpret Mr. Grimes’ confidence as snarkiness, an irreverent tone shared by the latest crop of Times writers who are helping the broad sheet fit into a tabloid world.

Here is Mr. Grimes on Roy’s New York: “If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it.”

On Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe: “What looked like a flashy sports car a decade ago now seems more like a midsize Buick …”

On Berkeley Bar & Grill: “The place is called Berkeley, but they should have called it Oakland. There’s not a whole lot of there there.”

Mr. Grimes can also deliver a compliment: Mr. Bouley “cooks the way Racine wrote and Descartes thought.”

Roy’s Mr. Yamaguchi told The Observer that when he saw Mr. Grimes’ no-star review, he thought, “O.K., guys, we’ve got to change the name of the restaurant and get rid of the menu.” Instead, Mr. Yamaguchi wrote Mr. Grimes a letter. “I wrote: I appreciate you guys reviewing the restaurant but, jeez, the bottom line is, I think we’re doing everything right. If you disagree with what we’re doing, tell me what you think I’m doing wrong. But I never got a reply,” said Mr. Yamaguchi. Mr. Grimes called the letter “gentlemanly.”

If Mr. Grimes’ first 22 reviews got restaurateurs sizzling, his review of Aureole was a napalm-laced flambé. Mr. Grimes whacked several members of New York’s culinary establishment: New American cuisine icon Charlie Palmer and the Zagats, Tim and Nina.

“Aureole’s reputation exemplifies, to an extreme degree, the self-levitating phenomenon that I think of as the Zagat Effect,” wrote Mr. Grimes, “in which a restaurant, once it has achieved a top rating, continues to do so year after year, regardless of the quality of the food.” Mr. Grimes said the Zagat reference was an attempt “to explain what I thought was a nonculinary explanation for the slightly puzzling popularity of this restaurant. I didn’t think it could be explained on objective grounds, so I searched for another explanation and I developed this theory.… But it wasn’t a knock against Zagat.”

Some who read Mr. Grimes’ paragraph about Zagat and Aureole came away with this message: The people don’t know what’s good, but I do.

Mr. Grimes replied, “That’s my function. Film critics don’t have to get behind an idiotic movie like The Sixth Sense . You don’t look at what everybody thinks is wonderful and say, ‘Yeah, well it must be wonderful.’ You flunk Criticism 101 if you do that.”

As for the perceived snarkiness, “Sure, it’s there,” said Mr. Grimes. “That’s my writerly personality. It’s involuntary almost.”

EvenwhenMr.Grimes’ critics acknowledge he is a good writer, at least half a dozen chefs and restaurateurs said he doesn’t seem to enjoy what he is doing. “He doesn’t seem to have had a good time anywhere. I get the impression of a man sitting so rigidly in his seat that he can barely lift his fork,” said a restaurateur.

“Well, I’m having a reasonably good time,” replied Mr. Grimes.”I’mmystifiedby that.”

Before Ms. Reichl came to The Times , she had been a reviewer for almost 20 years, which has led some restaurateurs to question Mr. Grimes’ relative inexperience as a critic. “My background is as follows,”saidMr.Grimes.”I haven’t been to any cooking school except to report on the experience of going to a cooking school. I haven’t worked at a restaurant. I’m an amateur eater who’s turned pro in the tradition of A.J. Liebling.”

After graduating from Indiana University and earning a comparative literature doctorate at the University of Chicago, Mr. Grimes worked as an editor at Macmillan Publishing Company and in the 1980’s wrote the Drinking Man column in Esquire .Mr. Grimes is said to have a fondness for expensive bottles of wine. (“At pricy restaurants, you tend to be offered pricy wine,” replied Mr. Grimes. “I don’t think I’ve ever crashed the $200-a-bottle barrier.”) He went to Avenue magazine as an editor before arriving at The New York Times Magazine in 1989, followed by stints with The Times ‘ theater and dining sections.

“The question of expertise is a funny one,” Mr. Grimes said. “There is no school of accreditation for food journalists.” He added, “I’m absolutely confident that 90 percent of readers” who visit restaurants he’s reviewed “would come away saying that’s the appropriate review.”

Brian Young, chef of Pop restaurant, which got one star, said, “I don’t think [Mr. Grimes] got the restaurant.” Mr. Young said he found it unusual that when Mr. Grimes called “through back channels” to find out the ingredients in some of the dishes he had eaten. “Some of his guesses were very off-base,” Mr. Young said.

Mr. Grimes responded, “I recall asking him to describe in detail how he made a couple of things. I don’t call up and throw out guesses at chefs.”

“His due diligence sucks,” said Mr. Palmer, who said that, contrary to Mr. Grimes’ review, Richard Leach was not Aureole’s original pastry chef. And Mr. Palmer took issue with Mr. Grimes’ taste. “One night, he came in here and ordered a bottle of Blanc de Blancs champagne and three of the people were eating red meat,” said Mr. Palmer. “How much does he know about food and wine?”

Mr. Grimes reponded, “That’s a silly comment. I usually order champagne as an aperitif. It could be that people were drinking it so slowly that it was still there when the meat came.”

Mr. Miller said he knows what Mr. Grimes must be going through. “I wanted The New York Times ‘ one star to be something that a restaurant would be proud of,” he said, “but a restaurant getting one star is like a kid getting clothes for Christmas. Whatever your definition of a one-star, the reaction is always, ‘Hey, I deserve more than this.'”