When I arrived in New York City fresh out of graduate school in 1977, the city’s food scene couldn’t have been more different than it is today. Even calling it a scene would have been absurd: the farmers-market movement had barely begun, few liquor stores sold anything like an international selection of wines, and only a handful of restaurants had names widely recognizable to the general public—and those were mainly French. Indeed, during the late 1970s, fine dining at such places as Lutece and La Grenouille was generally acknowledged to be the exclusive province of businessmen with expense accounts and the idle rich. There would be no published Zagat guide for six more years, and the only chef whose name my friends and I recognized was Chef Boyardee.
Most of the verbiage devoted to food in local newspapers concerned easy-to-make recipes, human interest stories, food travel writing, kitchen advice to housewives, and the occasional piece that sought to get you interested in wine. Every Friday, there would be a restaurant review in The New York Times. The Times restaurant critic was Craig Claiborne, who did the job intermittently during a tenure of nearly three decades. He was also the food editor, the recipe developer, and the author—along with longtime collaborator Pierre Franey—of cookbooks that bore the Times imprint. Claiborne was born in Sunflower, Mississippi, where he grew up in a boardinghouse run by his mother. Upon moving to New York after two stints in the Navy and a cooking-school education in Switzerland, he began his career inauspiciously as a receptionist at Gourmet magazine. In 1957, he became the food editor at the Times, thought to be the first male to hold that position, in a section that was officially known as “Food Fashions Family Furnishings” but colloquially referred to as the Women’s Section. In that capacity, he’s generally credited with being the inventor of the modern restaurant review.
Prior to Claiborne’s tenure at the Times, reviews in newspapers and elsewhere had often been looked upon suspiciously by the dining public, seen more as a reflection of a publication’s advertising aspirations than a straightforward analysis of a restaurant’s virtues. Published regularly from 1935 through the mid-1950s, the Duncan Hines guides, known as Adventures in Good Eating, had been something of a national standard. They were at least partly the work of Hines, a traveling salesman of printing paper and ink, who undertook to tell other travelers where to eat, using prose that verged on puffery. Of the Oregon Caves Chateau in Oregon Caves, Oregon, the guide reads, in its 1944 edition, “Without the hospitality of the Sabins, this place would still be nice indeed. When you add their personalities, it makes it ‘tops.’ The Chateau is lovely, and unusual.” This is the totality of the review, and quite typical. One can only imagine how the hosts had fawned over the reviewer.
Hines’s guide incorporated recommendations from other travelers, so that you had no idea who wrote each individual entry. Other contemporary dining guides were also many-hands productions. Early in the 1970s, Forbes Magazine’s Restaurant Guide established itself as a major reference for New York diners. Though it was carefully superintended by Malcolm Forbes himself, the actual writing was the work of the magazine’s staff, and displayed no consistency of perspective. One of its stranger features is an almost dyspeptic distaste for dining. In the introduction, Forbes describes his experience of compiling the volume as “more ulcerous than enjoyable.”
Enter Claiborne, who, approaching the task with evident enthusiasm, established an ethical and procedural framework for restaurant reviewing: reviews would be done by a single individual. The reviewer would set his own name to the work. He’d visit a restaurant at least three times, and each visit would involve a table of at least three or four diners, with an eye to covering the menu as completely as possible, eating some dishes more than once to test for consistency. The publication would pay for the meals, and no free meals would be accepted. Most important, perhaps, was the stricture that the restaurant critic remain anonymous. Thus, the reservation would be made under a false name, and the critic and his party would do nothing to call attention to the fact that a review was in progress.