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.”
Even as Reichl was shaking up the demimonde of restaurant criticism, she upheld Claiborne’s tenets. Famously, in an early assessment of Le Cirque, she wrote a duplex review. The first part was an account of how she had been shabbily treated as an unrecognized diner, the second detailed the drastic improvements in service and food once she was identified:
Over the course of five months I ate five meals at the restaurant; it was not until the fourth that the owner, Sirio Maccioni, figured out who I was. When I was discovered, the change was startling. Everything improved: the seating, the service, the size of the portions. We had already reached dessert, but our little plate of petit fours was whisked away to be replaced by a larger, more ostentatious one.
Reichl struggled with anonymity during her time at the Times. Competition among restaurants was becoming fiercer, and a Times review could be a make-or-break matter. At an early point, someone got a photo of her, and it was reportedly plastered in the kitchen of every restaurant in town. Sometimes she wore wigs and other disguises, but increasingly she was forced to dine as a recognized celebrity.
Around the time Reichl started at the Times, I was hired as part-time restaurant critic at The Village Voice, alternating columns with my predecessor Jeff Weinstein. My qualifications were limited to having written Down the Hatch since 1989, a foodzine created in emulation of rock newsletters known as “fanzines.” Down the Hatch came out quarterly, and sought to review what I calculated to be the 99 percent of city restaurants ignored by critics. These were often small ethnic places in the so-called outer boroughs. In doing so, my obvious precursors were Calvin Trillin and Jane and Michael Stern, who’d made a point of celebrating vernacular food. While my Down the Hatch critiques tended to be slapdash affairs, more on-the-spot reportage than formal reviews, when I began working at the Voice I adhered to Claiborne’s standards, and the publication supported me with an almost unlimited eating budget.