Indeed, in her memoir Insatiable, published twenty-four years later, Greene maintains that she insisted to New York founder Clay Felker, “We have to do it like Craig Claiborne does at the Times. Anonymously. I’ll have to eat a minimum of three times before judging a restaurant—with friends—like he does. And pay the check.”
While Greene inherited Claiborne’s reviewing rubrics, her style of writing was strikingly different. She brought hyperbolic language to a medium that had once been merely informational. Describing André Surmain, the owner* Lutece, she observed, “. . . he is your host, a zany country squire with his fat lapels, the bluff blend of pinstripe, tattersall, stripe and Art Deco abstract. It is a highly aristocratic vulgarity, especially those crepe-soled rust suede Hush Puppies. It suits.”
After Gael Greene, the restaurant review would never be the same. When Mimi Sheraton succeeded Claiborne as the Times critic in 1975, it was clear that the paper was at least partly trying to clone Greene. Handy in the kitchen, she’d earlier published The Seducer’s Cookbook, which had a sexual zing never before seen in a book of recipes. Sheraton’s reviews for the Times were jam-packed with colorful dish descriptions and she adopted a confidential tone of voice that put us right at the table with her. In this emphasis she presaged what has come to be known as “food porn”—writing that is intended to stimulate the salivary glands through its primary focus on the appearance and flavor of food.
The length of the Times review had swelled from Claiborne’s time to approximately one thousand words, much of that devoted to glowing adjectives, as in this review of Le Cherche Midi, which appeared in Sheraton’s 1982 collection, Guide to New York Restaurants:
Among the most successful efforts are appetizers such as the mild and gently smoked trout, the cold leeks or asparagus mellowed by a vinaigrette dressing made with an excellent olive oil, and the salad of the ruby-red lettuce, trevisse, given crunch with walnuts and scented with walnut oil.
Clearly, the larders of restaurants were bursting with new and unfamiliar ingredients, and Mimi was there to praise them—not like a didactic schoolteacher but as one “foodie” to another (though that term would not come into common usage for several more years).
Sheraton’s book provides an index of restaurant types by ethnicity, and it’s obvious that by the early 1980s the restaurant landscape had become far more varied and international than it was when her predecessor listed a meager five categories. There were now forty-five types in New York City, including Brazilian, Russian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese. (To show how this trend has continued, by 2004 I was able to identify 145 cuisines in the fourth edition of my guidebook, Best Ethnic Eating in New York City.) By Sheraton’s time, it was no longer enough to simply describe a dish. Now the reader expected the reviewer, reference books at the ready, to explain its context, as well as make it sound delicious.
So Craig Claiborne built the foundation of professionalism. Gael Greene and Mimi Sheraton gussied it up and infused it with sensuality. And when Ruth Reichl, a Greenwich Village native, came to the Times in 1993 after a nine-year stint as food editor at the Los Angeles Times, three of them spent as restaurant critic, she turned the restaurant review into a bona fide literary form. Reichl brought a dramatist’s sensibilities to the restaurant critique, reproducing snatches of dialogue and describing fellow diners as if she were a travel writer in a foreign capital. Reichl covered a broader range of restaurants than Bryan Miller, her immediate predecessor at the Times, conferring on Chinese restaurants, in particular, a status they’d never enjoyed before, and causing Miller to complain in a memo to his former boss at the paper, which was gleefully intercepted by the New York Post: “How do you think she comes off giving SoHo noodle shops 2 and 3 stars? . . . SHE HAS DESTROYED THE SYSTEM that Craig, Mimi, and I upheld.”