Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Jan 24, 2022
NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells reflects on 10 years on the job
On 'Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,' Wells opens up about his process, the pandemic and THAT Guy Fieri review
No one is safe when Pete Wells chooses to turn his gaze their way: Not Guy Fieri, not Peter Luger, not even Per Se.
The restaurant critic for the New York Times since late 2011, Wells has spent the past decade expanding the scope of what it is a reviewer does at the paper. He is by all accounts the first to give starred reviews to restaurants in all five boroughs. And he’s gone out of his way to surface eateries that exist under the radar.
“I definitely wanted to say that I’m going to be reviewing restaurants that are up and down the fanciness scale and up and down the price scale,” says Wells, who is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” He was the first Times critic to review Shake Shack, for example, when it opened on the Fulton Mall in 2011 because, he says, it was “an important restaurant,” even if it’s not exactly Per Se.
But then, Per Se isn’t exactly always Per Se either. In a viral 2016 re-evaluation of one of New York’s (and the world’s) most vaunted and expensive restaurants, Wells stripped the Thomas Keller institution of two of its four stars. He similarly took Peter Luger down a notch in a 2019 zero-star roasting.
In our interview today, Wells explains that those two in particular were “restaurants that I thought have lost some of their excellence but maybe haven’t lost their self-regard. They were still acting and charging and treating you as if they were up at the top. And if they’re doing that, it’s fair to hold them to that standard.”
Of course as the Times restaurant critic, Wells has the power to make or break a restaurant (Keller himself called the Per Se takedown “devastating“), a power that he says he doesn’t take lightly. And it is for that reason he’s more likely to go out of his way to unearth off-the-beaten-Zagat-path culinary gems.
“The longer I’ve been on the job the more I look at the flip side of that which is the power to shine a light on some place that can maybe use more attention,” he says. “It has become much more interesting to me to get out there around the city and get into neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens that are not yet on the radar but deserve to be.”
The past two years have thrown a wrench into all of that, of course. With the pandemic came quarantines and shutdowns, to-go drinks and pivots and pop-ups. The Times has suspended the awarding of stars because Wells says it wouldn’t be fair yet to hold eateries up to pre-pandemic standards. And Wells himself had to pivot away from reviewing for a bit to cover how the industry was dealing with the crisis. This involved calling up restaurateurs whose establishments he had previously panned.
“It was very easy for me to do but it wasn’t always easy for the people in the restaurant business to accept me in this new role,” he says. “I had one restaurateur say to me, ‘You don’t like my restaurants! Why are you calling me?’ He wanted to talk because he knew the question I was asking was a real story but the fact that I was asking it threw him for a loop.”
In the interview we discuss his overall approach and process to a job he surprisingly never wanted in the first place. “I can’t really account for it, except it definitely was not my dream job. … I thought there were a lot of more interesting ways to approach food writing than reviews,” he says. “I think I was out of my mind then. It was always a great job and I didn’t know it.”
So, don’t feel too sorry for Wells (save that for his expense account).
He took the job and he came out swinging. Early on in his tenure, he wrote a savage (and savagely funny) review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, which went viral for all the right reasons. Naturally, we discuss that, too. “It all seemed legit to me but plenty of people wanted to think I was shooting fish in a barrel,” he says now.
Wells, who lives in Bed-Stuy and prefers to dine incognito (though never in disguise), also suggests an itinerary for eating one’s way through Brooklyn—a great list of suggestions for first-time visitors and old local foodies alike.
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