After he visited Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, Pete Wells wanted to know why the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders were so far from awesome, and why the bourbon butter crunch chips were missing from his Almond Joy cocktail.
The New York Times restaurant critic did, decidedly, have more questions than answers. So instead of taking a traditional approach to his much-talked-about review, he wrote the whole thing as a series of questions.
“I really did have a lot of questions; there was so much about the restaurant that I couldn’t figure out,” Wells said by phone. “When I sat down to think about how I was going to approach the review, I just started going over the things I couldn’t understand and the things that seemed so strange to me. They really started to add up to the point where I thought, boy, I really could just keep going with this.”
Writing the review as series of questions also made it easier for Wells to structure the piece.
“It freed me up a little bit from some of the mechanics of a normal piece. I didn’t need transitions, and I didn’t need some of the normal nuts and bolts of a standard piece of writing,” said Wells, who didn’t tell his editor about his approach until after he wrote the review.
“Once the reader understands that it’s going to be one question after another, they stop looking for those awkward transitions from talking about the food, to talking about the decor, to talking about the service.”
New York Times critics have traditionally visited restaurants at least three times before reviewing them. Wells visited Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar four times to get a better sense of the place and because there were some items on the lunch menu that weren’t offered at dinner.
During one of his visits, a colleague who was with him said the restaurant was “psychedelically bad” and that “it kind of opened your mind to new forms of badness.”
“Reviews can certainly affect the restaurant,” said Wells, who was named the Times’ restaurant critic in November 2011. “That’s one of the reasons we always go at least three times before we do any kind of star rating, especially a negative one. You want to make sure you give it a good shot because the consequences can be damaging.”
Wells wanted to write about the restaurant because it has a high media profile and because there’s already a built-in curiosity about Fieri. He was disappointed to find that Fieri — whose Food Network show celebrates good food at diners, drive-ins and dives — wasn’t taking American cuisine seriously in his own restaurant.
“I really like and care about American food, and I really like and care about what I call in the piece, ‘no-collar’ food — buffalo wings and nachos,” said Wells, who recently reviewed a restaurant’s tater tots and breakfast sausage and cheese sandwich.
“It should be held up on a pedestal; people love that food and they’re going to go to a restaurant to get it because they love it. The kitchen should love it too.”
Helen Rosner understood the point Wells was trying to make, and so did TIME magazine TV critic James Poniewozik, who wrote:
“… if Wells’ impressions of the food are right — I haven’t eaten at the restaurant — it’s not that Fieri is serving an unworthy, declassé kind of food. It’s that he’s taken the kind of authentic, lusty American foods that he’s showcased in his Food Network eating tours, used it to build a personal brand and used that brand to pass off a lousy imitation. Again, I have not eaten at Guy’s myself, but as an argument, Wells’ review isn’t an insult to diner-and-dive food but a defense of it.”
Some have called the review “merciless,” and wondered whether it was too harsh. But many of the responses I’ve seen have been positive; Boston Pheonix’s Chris Faraone tweeted that it’s “Probably one of the best things I’ve ever read. Ever…”
Fieri has fired back at other food critics who have given his restaurant bad reviews, and told The Daily Meal last month that he doesn’t take the criticism too seriously: “I know what I make, I know how I cook,” he said. “You can’t have eight restaurants and be doing it wrong. Or that wrong.”
Wells admits that as bad as Fieri’s restaurant was, there was one dish he liked. “One of my favorite things was the roasted pork Bahn Mi,” he said. But he still had a question for the restaurant: “Why is one of the few things on your menu that can be eaten without fear or regret … called a Roasted Pork Bahn Mi, when it resembles that item about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson?”
Wells has yet to hear from anyone at the restaurant.
Related: New York Times hosts ad client dinner at Guy Fieri restaurant it panned earlier in the day (Poynter.org)