Putting Dishes to the Test

Frank Bruni recently stepped down as the New York Times’ restaurant critic. He explains the science of evaluating, the challenge of avoiding cliché, and the democratization of online food reviews.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: When you review a restaurant, what are you looking for?

FRANK BRUNI: I’m not looking for any prescription or any formula. I’m looking to have a good time. I mean I think above and beyond all else, a restaurant is, in return for the money we spend, supposed to show us a good time. It’s a good time that is achieved through a combination of things beginning with food. You know we’re there to eat, and that’s why it’s a restaurant and not a movie theater or whatever. So first and foremost it has to please us and nourish us – because obviously eating has other functions as well – with its food. But I’m just basically hoping to have a good time; to pass a couple of hours in a way that feels entertaining, that feels fulfilling, and that justifies whatever expenditure of money I as a proxy for other diners is making.

Question: Are certain aspects of restaurants overrated?

FRANK BRUNI: It’s kind of an impossible question to answer because no two people look for the same things in a restaurant, you know? There are people who care not at all about décor, and would want all restaurant reviewers in every restaurant review to simply talk about food. On the flip side there are people who will not, no matter how great the food, will not go into a restaurant that they feel is ugly and that doesn’t kind of please their visual sense. When friends ask me for recommendations, I would say oddly enough more often the first question is, “I wanna go someplace pretty. Or I wanna go someplace with really good lighting.” That’s their first way of narrowing the universe. And then they want to know where among those options can they get really good food. Or they want to know where they can eat light if they ask about food. Everyone has a very particular set of prejudices or likes about restaurants, and those even change from occasion to occasion or night to night. So there is no one aspect of restaurants that one can say in an objective sense is the most important. And I think different restaurants need to be taken on different terms. If you’re assessing as a diner or as a critic a restaurant like Buddakan in the meat packing district, to not spend a lot of thought and energy as to what it looks like is to ignore the whole point of the restaurant. It is meant to be a theatrical stage set. I mean if it had existed back when they were filming “Sex and the City”, we would have certainly seen a scene there- it’s that kind of restaurant. And if someone were writing a review of that, and they began and ended with the food and never digressed to talk about the scene and the decoration, they would not be serving that restaurant or the people interested in going there well.

Any personal dislikes or likes that are peculiar to you, you’re trying to tamp down a little bit because you are there as the eyes, and ears, and most importantly taste buds of the entire city or country really because we have a lot of visitors to New York who dine out all the time. But obviously objectivity is impossible. There’s no such thing. Criticism is by its nature subjective. So hopefully over time what readers do with any one critic – be that critic a movie critic, or a book critic, or a restaurant critic, is develop some sense of where their opinions diverge or dovetail with the critics, and find a way to kind of use that critic as a barometer; not necessarily as a perfect predictor for what they’ll think of places, but as a point of reference if they’ve learned, okay, we know we never agree with him on French, but we usually agree with him on Italian. We know we don’t agree on pretty restaurants, but we agree on other things – that sort of thing.

Question: How do you believe you stack up as a reviewer?

FRANK BRUNI: I certainly don’t think I achieve the right thing in all or maybe most reviews because it’s an imperfect science and I’m just doing my best every week. But it’s my hope with each review that there’s enough description in the course of the review of a restaurant that beyond the critical elements of a review, people will be able to get enough of a sense of a place that they may even say, you know, this may be one star, but it sounds like one star that in my universe would be a very pleasing one star or two stars. Or this may be three stars to him; but when he tells me why he likes it those are things that aren’t important to me.

So I think a review should be descriptive enough within the context of criticism to give people an opportunity should they come at it that way, to disagree or figure out some things for themselves. I also think, unlike movies where hundreds of thousands of people will go to see a movie, and are reading a movie review or theater review sometimes as well, as a very specific guide do I want to see this or not – I think the number of people who cycle through a given restaurant – the fraction of readers of a review who are likely to cycle through that restaurant or even consider it. They might live outside New York. They might not have that sort of budget. They are also looking for just a vicarious eating experience. And so I think a restaurant review ideally should be a somewhat entertaining reading experience for those people who are never going to set foot in that restaurant, and aren’t beginning the review for a signal as to whether they should or not.

Question: What do you say to people who think your reviews make or break a restaurant?

FRANK BRUNI: I don’t dwell a lot on the making or the breaking because I think that would paralyze you, and you do have a job to do. Your primary obligation – both in terms of pointing them to certain places, and in terms of just entertaining and illuminating them – is to readers. That said, one of the reasons why it’s always been a tradition for the Times critic to visit a restaurant so many times before reviewing to kind of follow certain procedures in terms of working his or her way through the menu. And that’s all done with a very heavy awareness that we do have an economic impact on these restaurants. And I’m aware that there are a lot of restaurants I never write about because they are small enough restaurants that there aren’t that many people clamoring for information about them. And if I were to write about them it would be in a negative vein, and it would probably have a horrible impact on them. So there’s just no reason to visit that upon a restaurant that the readers aren’t standing around saying, “But what do you think of . . . What do you think of . . .?”

There’s gratuitous negativity, or what I would think could be gratuitous negativity that I absolutely avoid for that reason. But beyond that, at the end of the day people want to read restaurant reviews. People deserve restaurant reviews. While these reviews cut hugely in the favor of some establishments, they’re going to cut against some other establishments, and that’s just the nature of the beast. And you try to just be as responsible as you can in light of that economic impact.

Question: How do you avoid cliché?

FRANK BRUNI: Well you fall into clichés. You tumble headlong into clichés because it really is difficult not to. And that’s not a defense of that. It’s just an admission. But it’s difficult not to if you are writing about food with the kind of frequency that newspaper and magazine critics are. You use the word “succulent” a lot. You use the word “tender” when you’re not using the word “succulent”, although they’re not exact adjectives. I’m joking but not really, which it is true, and it is a liability, and a problem, and a challenge, and an obstacle and all those things that the vocabulary for taste and flavor is not an enormously broad one. So to a certain extent you just have to kind of acknowledge that and move on, and try not to reach so far for new ways to describe taste that you just land in the realm of the ridiculous, which you also end up doing nonetheless. You just do your best. You try to work with the associations that people have – the associations that you have. Sometimes you realize that lengthy descriptions just aren’t going to be able to avoid those sorts of things. And so you shorten them. You do what you can.

Question: What do you think of the democratization of food criticism, especially online?

FRANK BRUNI: In a lot of ways I think it’s a great thing because I think a restaurant consumer or a restaurant aficionado trying to get a clear bead on what they might think of a restaurant has a lot of different things that they can triangulate between now. They can get their hands on a broader array of opinions; on a longer and wider stream of information, and maybe make decisions that are all that more informed. The thing that is important for the people who read all this stuff to bear in mind is not everybody is taking as scientific an approach to restaurants. Some of what one might read on a chat room for example is someone reacting to a single visit to a restaurant as opposed to multiple visits. Some of what you read in some blogs reflects meals that were not paid for by the critic. None of which invalidates it, but it’s important to know that not every single voice out there is operating within the same parameters or in the same fashion.

Recorded on January 22, 2009