Let Them Eat (Cheesecake Factory) Cake

If all I thought I did in my career was to help rich people decide where to eat, I’d be sad. I thought of this yesterday — a paraphrase of something that Ruth Reichl, the onetime New York Times restaurant critic, said during a profile of her running on NY1 News (“NYC’s 24-hour news channel”).

Because yesterday, the New York Times helped less-rich people (or those who want to eat like them?) decide where to eat. The Gray Lady held her nose, traveled over bridges and through tunnels, parachuted into places like T.G.I. Friday’s in Ramsey, NJ and the Red Lobster in Nanuet, NY (nine reviewers, nine restaurants), and then thoroughly surprised Herself by actually not gagging on some of the meals (Applebee’s Cajun lime tilapia, for one, “tasted fresh” and was “nicely grilled.”)

To me, the idea of New York Times reviewers setting out to the suburbs to review chain restaurants sounds much worse (elitism alert!) than was the piece they actually produced from their intrepid travels. Some bloggers disagree.

Writes Ezra Klein: “I’m pretty much your consummate coastal elite… but even I wouldn’t go so far as to mount an expedition to chain restaurants as if I were visiting rural Mangolia and chewing on caterpillars. So congrats New York Times — you’ve outdone yourselves on this one.” And: “So there you have it: Adults who like Applebee’s are like particularly simple-minded children. Christ. You’re writing in public, folks. Have some manners.”

Matthew Yglesias has a particular— and personal— beef with the piece:

Ezra Klein’s right to bemoan the sneering condescension in this NYT piece on suburban chain restaurants. For me, this is made all the worse by the knowledge that the attitude of contempt is almost certainly fake. I was actually born and raised in Manhattan by fancy-pants parents who wouldn’t dream of darkening the door of an Outback Steakhouse. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge by father has never tasted the joys of Chili’s (those two are my favorites).

All of which has mostly made me aware of how rare this is. Most of New York City’s elitists grew up in very conventional middle class suburbs and then moved to the city sometime after college.

The nouveau elite. Ack!

This also irritates Yglesias’ fellow Atlantic blogger (and fellow Authentic, Chain Food-Deprived Manhattanite), Megan McArdle: “I was raised on the Upper West side by a woman who made her own croissants… And there is nothing—nothing—more grating than born again food snobs writing articles like this.”


Sure, there were flashes of snobbery (like maybe when Rick Lyman wrote about those people he saw at the Outback Steakhouse bar who “appeared to have taken up semipermanent residence and were perhaps even having their mail forwarded” or, in another review: “True confession: I had a great meal at the Cheesecake Factory in White Plains.”). But is that any worse than some of the reviewers seeming to bend over backwards to find something, anything flattering to say about the cuisine or the atmosphere (as if warned by their editor, “If you can’t say something nice…”) to avoid, perhaps, coming off as elitist (faux or otherwise)? Chili’s rib-eye may have “lacked a beefy taste” but, the reviewer hastily added, “I was delighted…with the perfectly cooked steamed broccoli that came with…”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.