Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Defending Manhattan From America: Pete Wells and Guy Fieri

Last night, or in "today's paper" if that is how you roll, Times restaurant critic Pete Wells bombed Guy Fieri's new garbage hut in Times Square with a zero-star review and the Internet kind of exploded over it with glee.

This food shack does in fact sound truly terrible! I fortunately already knew that I would not need to eat there, long before the Times saw fit to inform me. Which, then, I have questions: is there a service component to this kind of criticism? As you generally expect from a restaurant review? Not at all, really. You were going to eat there, or you weren't. You likely weren't, except as ironic torture.

So it's actually culture criticism, and a New York-specific kind. There's a time and a place for a New York publication to throw down some boundaries about what we will and not "allow," as snobby New Yorkers. (Although, "businesses" and the City have been complicit in making Times Square into New York City's Gross-Out Zone, complete with walking tip-begging Disney puppets, and that consolidation keeps the rest of New York safe. By the time Condé Nast moves into the New World Trade Center (ha ha, enjoy!), there'll be nothing left in that American nightmare funhouse.)

This assertion of New Yorkness has some precedent, apart from "most of the career of the New York Observer":

Back in a different age—2009!—Cintra Wilson made the case in the Times that that kind of American masstige polyester blend had no place in Manhattan.

So the gloating can be seen largely as a mostly correct kind of New York snobbery. It is defending the borders of New York. (It can also be seen in a more ugly light; of rich people harshing on poor people and their gross food and/or clothes, essentially. I'm not sure I'm totally on board with that: this restaurant is also an expensive bad restaurant.)

The glee looked like this, in general:

There were dissidents to this overwhelmingly popular viewpoint. (Go figure.)

(My main objection is that the whole review is in the form of a question? Which I find exhausting? And tonally tiresome? But that device is something I should be used to by now?) But we love a hatchet job. There's a reason it feels good. And then there's… this.

NOT QUITE BUYING THAT ANALOGY, though I would enjoy that happening, and it might be truer than I think.

But also. This is a case in which this snobbery is expressed at the bluntest, most obvious manifestation of Garbage USA incursion into Manhattan. This is the easiest stone to throw.

And it's celebrated because that stone is coming from a traditionally stodgy institution that doesn't often see fit to throw stones. Plenty of blogs have called this terrible place terrible, at great length and with much glee. But come from the allegedly esteemed pulpit of the Times restaurant reviews, it becomes "official."

One of us, one of us, etc. But who's us?

58 Comments / Post A Comment

I actually didn't find the review too "defend NY from America". Wells knows that his audience on this is, partly, tourists. So the strategy, presumably, behind the review is that enough attention will be given to it that those tourists, who wouldn't read "food blogs," or restaurant reviews at all, ever, but who might eat at Guy's Garbage Hut, even for their own amusement, would be warned away. Those prices are no joke.

max bread (#5,970)

@ContainsHotLiquid I agree! The main thrust of the review seemed less "get this flyover shit out of my town" and more "this guy is a scam artist selling fried snake oil."

Wells bends over backwards to defend (what I guess we'd call?) "down-home" American cooking, and to compare Fieri's product to that — pointedly mentioning, and holding up as touchstones, dishes from outside of New York.

It's kind of the opposite of "defend N.Y. [food culture] from America [n food culture]," if anything. It's like, "defend ['real'] America [n cuisine] from Times Square [as a stand-in for capitalism, or whatever, probably]"!

SkinnyNerd (#224,784)

Defending America from Times Square. Just like in the 70s, except different.

BadUncle (#153)

@ContainsHotLiquid I don't know whom the Times intended to defend from whom. I'm just glad my mouth has been defended from invasion by "toasted marshmallow [that] taste[s] like fish?"

@BadUncle Yeah – even if Wells made that one up I appreciate it.

Megoon (#201,547)

@ContainsHotLiquid Yeah, I think the review is more FOR the flyover folks who visit NY. This argument that no tourist reads the Times is weirding me out – lots of people who don't live here read them Times, and lots of people who visit NY and read the Times are susceptible to visiting a shitty celebrity restaurant.

jolie (#16)

(My main objection is that the whole review is in the form of a question? Which I find exhausting? And tonally tiresome? But that device is something I should be used to by now?)

Thank you for pointing that out. Oh sure, I read the review ("review") as gleefully as everyone else but then also was exasperated by the rather cheap and obvious style Wells adopted. Save the cheap stylings for us bloggers; you're the Times, do better.

(Though it did inspire me to revisit Bruni's review of Ninja which remains a delight.)

@jolie Although a very different kind of review, this one by Bruni is just as delightful:

jolie (#16)

@Who_own_da_Chiefs !!!

I have A LOT to say about that because there's so much there to love but for now I want to note how adorable it is that in 2007 the Times restaurant critic explained what sriracha is to his readers! Olden times!

jolie (#16)

I've had a moment to collect myself and now I need to get this out: HE QUOTES "MAHOGANY" TO A STRIPPER AND SHE SINGS DIANA BACK AT HIM.

God created keyboard smashes precisely for this sort of situation.

Pop Socket (#187)

Times Square already has an Olive Garden and a Fridays. I don't see how this place lowers the average.

@Pop Socket Yeah, I was actually disappointed Wells didn't bring that up.

Leon (#6,596)

@Pop Socket – Olive Garden & Fridays are anonymous, obviously corporate, generic shit. "Shit", but palatable too people who are not out there taking risks/adventures, like guys who wear Dickies blue work pants or dockers khaki's and Sears "polo" shirts. It's a class thing, and "we" are on an ugly side of it.

The Guy Fieri thing is, he fits the "mold" of our foody culture – Guy Fieri is, in some terrible ways, David Chang for suburbanites. He defends/exhalts a part of American food culture which, as Wells admits, deserves exhaltation. He is bringing something new to it – nobody can deny that slathering donkey sauce on everything is 'new'.

The problem is, he is not just a watered-down, easy to palate version of it. Olive Garden : al di la :: Budweiser : Prima Pils. They're a generic, goes down easy, low risk/low reward version of a good thing.

The problem w/ Fieri's times square joint is that it presents itself to Non-NYC-Snobs as a taste of higher-end foodie-culture within confines of attitude/flavor they are most comfortable in. It's the cult of celebrity chef, the fusion adventure, all of that rigamarole.

The horrible part is not just that it's horrible, but it's pretend bullshit which is also kind of insulting to people who don't already know they're elitists. I think the biggest problem is creating bullshit 'fake' experiences for tourists / non-elitists. It's something I hate sometimes about the food culture in general – just because your average straw man non-foodie doesn't follow the blogs and know the scene, a really kick ass meal at somewhere like Chennai Garden, which is probably a lot cheaper than Fieri, not a far walk, and legitimately good food.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Leon Saint-Jean I'm still baffled by this whole class thing. Am I really the only Awl reader who actually grew up in an exurb? It's a "class thing"? My parents still live in said exurb and still eat at Applebee's — and they are pretty damn discerning when it comes to real food and real restaurants, food being one of their great passions in life. It's just that Applebee's is one of the only things around and sometimes you're out running around and need to grab lunch, or whatever.

Meanwhile, I live in a coastal city, make less money than an Applebee's manager, and don't eat at chains, ever. Does this make me a member of some kind of elite?

Seriously, it almost seems like people who like calling foodies elitist are the ones most responsible for staking out food culture for the elite. My mom's family in Louisiana, my Italian great uncles, my gf's aunties (who grew up working in the sugar cane fields in Martinique and Guadeloupe), even my relatives out in Missouri — none of them are members of any elite and they all know from good food. You think they forget that the second someone sticks a laminated menu under their nose?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@stuffisthings (I don't know why I'm getting so huffy about this today. Must be that McDonald's burger I ate last week when I was drunk.) (Also I don't like the idea that as soon as you dip something in batter and call it "All American" NYC food critics are forced to walk on eggshells.)

Leon (#6,596)

@stuffisthings – I agree with you – the class thing is more of a 'creative class' vs 'working class' not an income bracket thing.

I compared Applebee's to budweiser for the same reasons you mention – it's not good, or fancy. It's a reliable version of a thing. It's cheap. It's the same everywhere, you know what you're getting. While sometimes is a time to try out new beers, sometimes you just want a cold fucking beer.

I'm snobby and elitist quite often – but that doesn't stop me from enjoying a cold bud after a long day sometimes. I agree with you totally.

The point you make about your family is excellent – good food is not, and shouldn't be, the provenance of the 'elite'. I have eaten, hands down, the best sausage I have ever tasted in some 'next to a field' shacks in the middle of nowhere in east texas. And also, 2nd place is stuff I paid $15 a pound for in NYC. Quality is allover.

My problem w/ Fieri is that it's NOT applebee's. It's a destination place, marketed as something special. Which it isn't, it's fucking bullshit. There's place in the world for Per Se, for McDonald's, for NJ Diners, for taco stands, for grease trucks – the vitriol directed at Fieri is that he's pretending to put a "Foodie Elite" spin on shit, but it's just dishonest.

Smitros (#5,315)

Target practice can be great fun, and sometimes it gets turned on targets too small to defend themselves.

But not this time. Pete Wells has used his powers for good.

jfruh (#713)

I think the review was actually pretty careful to make clear that it wasn't mocking the great American tradition of lowbrow unhealthy food of the sort that Guy lionizes on his show, but on this particular restaurant's flavorless and misguided implementation of the same. The thing New York is being defended from is not fatty and ultimately kind of shitty food (which is available on every corner in every borough) but a puffed-up ersatz expensive corporate version of the same.

THAT HAVING BEEN SAID, I think the real coastal elitist war against Real America now takes the form of sneers at chains like Applebee's/TGI Friday's/etc., which are an attempt to take bar food and basic American cuisine and upscale it so it feels like you're going "someplace nice" rather than a bar while still getting menu items you understand, and systemitize it so you know what you're getting every time and at every location (but aren't eating fast food). These are wildly popular among suburbanites (who make up a majority of the country's population and represent Middle America much more than any imagined small town denizens are), and Fieri's restaurant honestly sounds like a weird metastized version of the aesthetic. It's OK for urban snobs to make fun of these chains, and the fact that they can (like Pete Wells!) extol the vernacular origins of the dishes served there gives them a feeling of cred. It's an imagined alliance of highbrow and lowbrow against the middle.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@jfruh So we're not allowed to criticize something that is objectively bad so long as enough people who make less money and/or live farther from an ocean than us like it?

I think there is a very clear difference from saying "oh, everyone should eat exclusively at Michelin starred French restaurants" and saying "there is lots of affordable (and downright cheap) food in this country that has culinary value, why eat overpriced middlebrow garbage at Applebees?" and it's disingenuous to say they are both equally elitist.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@jfruh Plus, I'm willing to bet that there are far more refugees from the suburbs than born-and-bred Manhattanites among the Awl readership (and probably the population of trendy New Yorkers generally) so it's not like Applebee's is some mystifying alien phenomenon we have to put on our pith helmets and go study.

jfruh (#713)

@stuffisthings I'm not saying that at all! I'm just saying that the cultural overtones of food criticism (and good luck disentangling the cultural overtones from the food overtones, it's really hard!) are aimed at the chain restaurants enjoyed by the country's broad suburban middle class, not at actual food enjoyed by poor people. It's not elitist to say that the food at many of these chains is gross, at all! (Not all of them, necessarily, I will extol the virtues of Chevy's forever.) It is kind of elitist to make fun of them for being "middlebrow" though, while simultaneously extolling the virtues of the lowbrow as being inherently virtuous. (There also a lot of shitty dives and diners out there, many of which are in New York.)

I guess I was trying to respond to some of the backlash against this review, which complained that it was rich New York snobs making fun of poor middle Americans, when in fact that it's part of a horizontal socio-economic war about cultural tastes.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@jfruh Eh. I'm all for cultural elites and the poor uniting to destroy the suburban middle class. That's even the agenda of my preferred political party, according to many members of said class.

Let's bring back "petit bourgeois" as an insulting epithet!

jfruh (#713)

@stuffisthings oh, no, I'm right there with you as an exile. Here's some real heresy: I grew up in Buffalo (partly in city, partly in 'burbs) and for the first five years or so after I moved away the only restaurant outside WNY I could find that did Buffalo wings right was Applebee's. Every bar in America can do them fine now, but it took a surprisingly long time.

The food from many chains is genuinely gross, no doubt due to their homogenizing methods — last time my wife and I drove any long distance outside the Northeast Corridor axis, we stopped at Olive Garden, thinking "We love pasta! This will be great!" and were genuinely horrified — but not always (Chevy's 4 lyfe, as mentioned earlier). That said, I always go into a snobby spiral when I go into one of these places, and of course like any urban elitist I don't think I'm wrong! But I do feel like I have to distinguish for myself between culinary contempt and aesthetic contempt.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@jfruh I'd just like to point out that it's not that the Rest of America prefers their chains to the way We eat. To be able to prefer something you have to be given a choice of something else. The issue is that the Rest of America is not given any choices. They are being subjected to the corporate dictatorship which has prescribed a diet of synthetic foods and spaces for them. It' a horrific tyranny which should not be defended as a valid choice, but should be fought against and brought down. We must liberate our fellow Rest of Americans!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@jfruh I had a similar experience with Red Lobster once. They were doing a huge TV advertising blitz for some kind of "endless shrimp" special, and my stoner roommate and I kept talking about going until finally one day we went. We were like "OMG we are going to eat sooo much shrimp!" But it was actually completely disgusting. Like, not even chain-bland-bad (because at that time we ate at a lot of chain places) but literally just inedibly gross. I think we may have left after one plate each and gone to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet or something…

@jfruh There should be nothing snobbish about expecting food to be good no matter where it's from. This is why I dislike Cheesecake Factory because it sells itself as being better than Applebees but it's just as mediocre but twice as expensive. (Though their drinks are quite good.)

freetzy (#7,018)

"Yakkin' About Cold French Fries"

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Just wanted to get meta for a second and say re Tweet roundups — mm mm good!

mimithedog (#1,165)

Wonder what Padgett Powell thinks about this…

cinetrix (#47)

@mimithedog I know, right?

Crap food is crap food and deserves to be criticized whenever and by whoever. I don't hate Applebee's or Sbarro's or Olive Garden because they are targeted to people who live in flyover land. I hate them because the food tastes like plastic and has dumbed down the national palate. Chain food just sucks (except for Popeye's, of course). And anybody selling tarted up chain food (at higher prices) deserves to be thrown in a juicer.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I am desperately UPSET that the UNDISPUTED MASTER of Fierology has gone all but unmentioned. The NYT piece was just as pallid and blah as the "ghostly nubs of unblackened, unspiced white meat in your Cajun Chicken Alfredo."

deepomega (#1,720)

The review also goes out of its way to point out that there are some good-ish things on the menu. It is not simply "WHY BOTHER?" but a bit more nuanced.

(Which is blown up by the aggravating question format.)

hman (#53)

To be fair, his mini-review of Eleven Madison Park a coupla months ago made the experience there sound pretty awful too.

Leon (#6,596)

One could make a really weird libertarian argument that over-regulation/permits/fees and gov't subsidization of home-ownership (esp. via the mortgage income deduction) impact on real estate has ade it prohibitively expensive for one-off restaurants doing anything 'interesting' to open in the suburbs – in big cities there is enough of a population in a small area that the chance of success, even in the face of the costs, mean you have to only 'hook' a much smaller percentage of the population in your area in order to stay afloat. in the burbs, you need a much higher market-share to hit break even.

somebody please tell me why my argument is wrong, i really don't want the libertarians to be right on this.

jfruh (#713)

@Leon Saint-Jean don't worry, the huge majority of actual self-professed libertarians believe suburbia to be the natural order, and any attempt to "force" Americans who want yards and garages to live in cities and take public transit is "social engineering."

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Leon Saint-Jean You can actually find decent restaurants in the exurbs, just as you can find shitty restaurants in cities. We may not have an Applebees in my (urban, East Coast) neighborhood, but we have a million of those Chinese takeout places that seemingly come pre-packaged, tons of mediocre fried fish places, 20-30 Ethiopian restaurants of which about 6 are good, and a dozen identical Thai places. I'd wager that the same proportion of people eat at bad restaurants in cities as in suburbs, the difference being A) the bad restaurants in cities are not usually chains (and the local chains are more likely to be some of the BETTER restaurants in the area) and B) the density and total population is higher, so there are simply more good restaurants in any given neighborhood.

Also, it doesn't cost $3 million to start a little Mexican restaurant in a strip mall, so if your food is either good, cheap, or both, you can do steady business and make a fine living — the only good sushi place in Lakeland, FL has been limping along for years with like 10 lunch customers. In the burbs, chains have a much higher start-up cost than independent restaurants and so they have to do the assembly line approach to make money.

Nothing at all to do with taxes or regulation except to the extent that US tax and regulatory policy (and infrastructure spending pattern) created the exurb in the first place.

@stuffisthings Indeed, the best, most competitive and diverse place for Chinese food in the US is in the malls of the San Gabriel Valley.

joeks (#5,805)

It is right and good to call shitty things shitty. If you're gonna make garbage food and sell it at high prices, at least do a good job of it.

Matt (#26)

Wish the New York Times would review Twitter tweet roundups on websites.

NinetyNine (#98)

Cool subtweet.

Matt (#26)

Be less stupid by throwing the easiest stone. You guys are all heart.

Hi Choire,

I linked to your piece in my story about Pete Wells' review. I talked with him this morning about why he wrote it as a series of questions, and why he thinks the restaurant undervalues American cuisine:

~Mallary Tenore
Managing editor,

jolie (#16)

OH MY GOD CHOIRE! YOU DONE MADE IT NOW! I bet no one will ever ask how to pronounce your name after this!

@jolie Damn right. We're proud of you, Kerry.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Mallary Tenore @twitter I see what you did there, with the headline.

jolie (#16)

@SarahHeartburn "Claire Sealy, for crying out loud."

David (#192)

Just so I might read a well written description of the gasp, flinching eye roll, and wagging finger one can consistently get when daring to ask for any "substitution" (what-so-ever, including a cocktail without alcohol in it)— will someone please compose a review of the experience at Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens?!

Sam Biddle@twitter (#239,403)

The New York Times gave a horrible restaurant in New York a horrible review. This is the worst controversy.

prackin@twitter (#239,404)

@Sam Biddle@twitter

Spot on. After rereading the review, i think people are reading their prejudices into it a bit too much (shocking i know, right?). The problem isn't that Guy's place is lowbrow, it is that is an inconsistant, poorly executed/service and shockingly overpriced restaurant. Full stop. And that is what the review says.

Sure the tone is a bit mean and there are some easy points scored, but the real criticisms he has for it are about it failing to live up to the standards the Guy Fieryi brand sets for itself (passion for preparing tasty things well) and the basic tenets of dining out (you consistently get what you ordered in a timely and well prepared fashion). As someone who freely admits to watching more than my fair share of DD&D episodes (and even sometimes eating at places featured on it), I would expect Guy to care a lot more about the quality of the experience.

roboloki (#1,724)

never trust a man named after a shitty pontiac.

HEL (#239,405)

The point is that Pete Wells seems to enjoy plain and simple – and good – American food. He went to this place four times. The Times typically reviews a restaurant after three visits. I think he wanted to like the restaurant but Guy's American Kitchen & Bar did all in its power to turn him off. This is not about snobbery on the part of the Times. It is about a personality taking advantage of those who eat at his place by claiming victimhood. "The snobs hate me." This is a case of reverse snobbism at its worst.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

Why isn't it called something like Foody Brooklyn's? That is what I'm interested in.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

Pete Wells comes off as a real corncob here. If you don't appreciate bold flavors maybe you should stay out of Flavor Town, kemo sabe. Wells is officially banned from Captain Karl's Pizza Ship.

@Lockheed Ventura I have no idea what you're saying but I will laugh to my death when you say it.

Guy Fieri is a manufactured "foodie" shallowly extolling the virtues of authentic cuisine that he often presents as more of a sideshow or stunt food.

Not sure why we're surprised that his menus and restaurants reflect this. I guess we're surprised that the execution is so poor, given that Fieri is more of a franchiser than a chef.

Flashman (#418)

Does it make any difference to the 'classist' attack that (I was curious and Googled for it) the NY Post also gave this place a terrible, zero star review?

I like the ones where the guy beats the food. Because fuck you, food.

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