It didn't all start with Guy Fieri. Pete Wells was officially on the job as the restaurant critic for the Times for 11 months before his infamous guillotine chop on the TV chef's Times Square eatery. And during that time, he fired off a number of literary harpoons at everyone from Hakkasan ("The real problem is that its prices are too high for extremely restrained portions of food that is, in too many cases, about as interesting as a box of paper clips.") to Le Cirque ("Le Cirque classics like steak au poivre, Dover sole almondine and even the famous chocolate soufflé lacked conviction. New dishes lacked rationale. Nearly everything lacked seasoning.") and the 21 Club ("To get the violence over quickly: a game platter, with venison, a boar chop, house-made bacon and rabbit sausage, was as cold as if it had been carried all the way from the hunting lodge.")
I reached out to all these establishments for comment on Pete Wells. None have responded.
Then it happened. On November 13th, 2012, under the headline "As Not Seen on TV," Wells published a review of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square. The review is 50 sentences long. Forty-nine of them are questions. Within hours of the publication online, the review had gone viral. Lines like "Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? When you saw the burger described as 'Guy's Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,' did your mind touch the void for a minute?" made Wells' name ring out in non-food-media circles. As a piece of art, it was masterful. "It was a high-wire act," says Anderson. "You had to see if he could still write that way all the way to the end."
Fieri (whose people won't talk to me about Pete Wells either) obviously saw it differently. "He came in with a different agenda," he said on a morning talk show. "It's a great way to make a name for yourself, go after a celebrity chef who is not a New Yorker." And, to be honest, that goofy bleach-blonde bastard has a point. What was Pete Wells doing going to his shitty tourist trap in the first place?
"In my opinion, that was a review generated by the internet," says New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt. "Because no one was talking about that restaurant in the food circles I inhabit. It was the New York food aristocrats’ lordly view of Guy Fieri and the lower restaurant echelon. It was entertaining and effective, but it's not like the Times readers were going there to eat those grim-sounding burgers anyway."
And on the flip side, it’s not as if Fieri's core demo is going to be swayed by Times reviews. Do you think a person who looks at Fieri, looks at that Times Square location, and is like, "Yep, this’ll work," is also posting on Chowhound?
The answer is no. I know this because I headed up to Times Square and, for several hours, stood outside of Fieri’s restaurant, which could best be described in an elevator pitch as what might happen if Ruby Tuesday did sex with an unkempt Ed Hardy store. My goal was to read some of my favorite excerpts from Pete Wells' piece to patrons leaving the restaurant and ask them what they thought. Turns out, the majority of people leaving Guy Fieri's do NOT want to stop and talk to a random guy on the street in Times Square asking if he could read them something. Neither of the two couples who did stop (one from the Midwest, one from the South) wanted to reveal anything beyond their first names. And they definitely didn’t know who Pete Wells was.
"So that old fat Yankees pitcher reviews restaurants now?" said "John."
"No, sir," I said. "You're thinking of David Wells. This is Pete Wells."
"Oh," he said a little glumly, and I felt like I'd let us all down.
Having closely read all his reviews, you start to pick up on some Pete Wells-ian themes. For one, he fits in the internet vernacular like he's fluent in a language he only begrudgingly speaks ("My one-sentence review of Lilia for the too-long-didn't-read crowd: Missy Robbins is cooking pasta again."). Platt puts it in a different way, "Like many of us, he spends lots of time complaining about the adverse power of the internet. But he's also been very good at exploiting that power with the places he chooses to review."
Second, he does have a bit of populist in him. Monitoring the restaurants he's chosen as Critics' Picks, the simple concepts done remarkably well, succeed. Uncle Boons, Parm, Mighty Quinn's, Mission Chinese, RedFarm, Dirt Candy, etc. Needlessly expensive places draw his ire. Note his language in the first line of his Hakkasan review: "At first, a hostile takeover did not appear to be the best solution to the problems of Hakkasan, the multimillion-dollar exercise in Orientalism one block off Times Square." Or his pointed observation about the wealthy families eating "comfort food for millionaires" at Crown on the UES: "Before it was reduced to handing out reservations on OpenTable, that restaurant operated as something close to a private club. Crown is more like a public dining room for locals who've given the cook the night off. Before 8 p.m., families eat wordlessly, girls ballerina-straight, boys slumped in their blazers, parents plodding their way through a cozy Burgundy."
I contacted all of these restaurants hoping to talk at length about Pete Wells. Was he right about them? Did they change? Do the wounds inflicted by Pete Wells still ache? What are his hands like? Sort of paw-like? But they wouldn't talk to me either.
Which leads us to Per Se. The Thomas Keller New York flagship, which garnered four stars from Sam Sifton in 2011, and four from Frank Bruni in 2004, was knocked down to two by Pete Wells this past January in another review that pinged around the internet. It was a completely different kind of viral moment for Pete Wells, because, in a sense, he was just doing his job as a critic. But that sort of a review -- of a restaurant from someone inviolable, with Adamantium-fused restaurant bones like Thomas Keller -- sent shockwaves through the fine-dining community, on both sides.
"I look at that review from a chef's perspective, having worked in those kitchens where we're doing three-Michelin-star food and you're putting in all this effort -- 18-hour days, six days a week," says Glen Ellen Star chef/owner Ari Weiswasser, a veteran of French Laundry, Daniel, Picholine, and Corton in NYC. "And really the only reason you’re willing to get up in the morning and do that day after day is for the pride of being part of something special. You take those stars away, and take away the pride of being in that kitchen, it kills the kitchen." Weiswasser recalls working at the fine-dining restaurant Gilt in 2006 when Frank Bruni reviewed it. After he gave it a disappointing two stars, "within four days after the review, everyone was gone."
Platt, for his part, says that there is deeper meaning to suss out if you give it a close read. "The New York Times is the keeper of the four-star flame. And [Pete] Wells basically officially put a stake in the heart of fine dining. His message was, 'Who has time for this?' And by the way, who’s going to pay 1,000 bucks for this? I don't think that’s something the Times critic has expressly said before."
The irony of the New York Times restaurant critic potentially putting the final nails in the coffin of old-school fine dining is as rich as those people who eat at Crown when their personal chef is off. But if anyone can pull it off, it’s Pete Wells. "He has a foot in both [the old and new] worlds," says Platt. "If something isn’t relevant, he lets you know why. His descriptions are vivid, and you can feel his ire. It penetrates everybody's distracted consciousness. I think his viralness is just getting more viral-y."
So where does this all end? Where will the judging eyes of history place Pete Wells when he finally removes the napkin he's classily tucked into the top of his shirt with his paw-hands and places it on the table for the last time? And why, for the love of everything precious in this world, won't he tell me?
There is no disputing he saves his harshest critiques for out-of-town chefs and chains (no matter how upscale). But is that because he's biased, or is it because those places really are shitty and don't deserve the silly high prices they charge? Maybe Pete Wells just can’t abide bullshit. Bullshit like exorbitantly priced fine dining getting complacent. Or celebrity-chef restaurant factories funded by outside investor money with menus developed by marketing droids. Or old-monied clubby "scenes" where the food you eat matters much less than the table you occupy.
A restaurant review is, after all, a service for the reader, right? And if Pete Wells has found a way to provide that service in an entertaining fashion, cobbling together lines that are shared and dissected with the same glee and wonderment as rap lyrics, it is hard to find real fault with that.
And yet. In talking to chefs you get a real sense that it is a bit of a terrifying prospect that this one man from Cumberland, Rhode Island -- by hitting shift 8 on his keyboard a certain number of times -- can give you job security or take it away. Can make you rich or break you. This has always been the case with modern restaurant critics. But with Pete Wells there's a suspicion that the man's need to entertain can often result in excessive collateral damage, more so than with past critics. The more damage, the more readers and shares. This is the internet's incentive system. This is what makes Pete Wells so dangerous.
Pete Wells is not in Dirty French. He reviewed it 17 months ago (two stars, "Dirty French is one cocky restaurant. It can also be an immensely enjoyable one.") and so it sits in that middle ground between reviews. I am standing at the bar, looking forlorn, trying to think of where he might be. He wasn't in Lowlife (one star, "Fussiness this extreme would be out of place at Le Bernardin."), or Wildair (two stars, "Sometimes, though, younger siblings who follow the rules can still pull off some quiet subversion.") and I didn't have the heart to see what was happening at Señor Frog's ("I was having my second Frogasm of the night when dinner got weird."). I order a drink and look at the pretty people across the bar, casually being very handsome and cool, and a line drifts into my consciousness: "I skulked through this slender crowd feeling like a beagle among greyhounds."
You'll never guess who said it.
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's national writer-at-large and thinks he'd have been a Stanley's Hamburgers guy. If you are Pete Wells, DM me: @KAlexander03.