In an era in which everyone’s becoming a critic, or at least a Yelper, one would think that fewer and fewer people would care what The New York Times says about a restaurant. Ruth Reichl said as much around the time it was announced that Frank Bruni was leaving the post.
“From the time of Craig Claiborne—who basically invented the genre—there has been a waning power among each Times restaurant critic,” she told The Observer.
But that didn’t stop Hugo Lindgren from getting much of the disempowered foodie gang together in this week’s Times Magazine. He enlisted former Times restaurant reviewers Sam Sifton, Mimi Sheraton and Ms. Reichl for the annual food issue, plus Amanda Hesser, who used to write Recipe Redux for the magazine. The package occasioned a specially designed web page.
“It’s not just about a restaurant,” Mr. Lindgren told Off the Record. “Food has cultural, political and policy implications for the whole world. It’s not contained to one human activity.”
Indeed, within the world of The Times, just the opposite is occurring: in the past decade, restaurant reviewing revealed itself to be one of the most opportune perches within the paper. Frank Bruni graduated to write for the Times Magazine and then took Frank Rich’s spot on the op-ed roster. Mr. Sifton will start as national editor later this month.
It’s probably true, as Ms. Reichl suggested, that a Times reviewer no longer makes or breaks a restaurant, but given food’s rising prominence within the national discourse (First Lady Hillary Clinton wrote a health care plan; First Lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden), it may be more true that food coverage makes or breaks a newspaper. Any time the Minimalist Mark Bittman compiles a list (“101 Things to Grill”), it’s likely to top the Most Emailed charts for a week; Mr. Bittman was recently given a Sunday Review column.
“It hasn’t escaped the notice of anyone,” Times dining editor Pete Wells told Off the Record. “The list can be tricky to interpret, but in a crude measure it tells you people care about food stories.”
Mr. Wells agreed that the cultural significance of the restaurant reviewer has risen but said the trajectories of Mr. Sifton and Mr. Bruni are more likely reflections of their personal versatility.
Mr. Bruni’s reviews revealed his skills as a reporter, Mr. Wells explained. “He picked up on trends and noticed things about restaurants no one else did. Those reviews were great examples of criticism, but they were really well observed and reported.”
Mr. Sifton’s pop culture references reflected the democritization of fine dining.
“Sam’s reviews were loaded with super smart, plugged-in references to books, theater, TV, music and movies, and just a general sense of the common culture and the way that restaurants now belong to that culture,” Mr. Wells noted. (Although Mr. Sifton’s legacy may not be in food criticism, Off the Record believes his recent battle of the boroughs with his predecessor Ms. Sheraton will be a primary source in the history of Brooklyn-Manhattan culture wars.)
On the matter of who will become Mr. Sifton’s successor, Mr. Wells had no comment.
For those with money on the question, Mr. Wells, who may be a candidate, did say that invisibility is no longer a make-or-break job requirement. Mr. Bruni’s “unmasking” gave his memoir a boost of publicity, but having already promoted oneself in the occasional TimesCast or gratuitous Tumbling won’t disqualify any writers. Critical anonymity was instituted to replicate the treatment and experience of a normal diner, Mr. Wells explained, which is no longer the exclusive domain of The Times.
“If you want to know how a normal diner is treated, go to Yelp or other places and actually hear from them,” Mr. Wells suggested.