Platt Du Jour
By Adam Platt
When I first began my strange career as a professional restaurant critic, way back in the distant, mostly vanished dinosaur era of what used to be called “gourmet fine dining”, I paid a lunchtime visit to a venerable New York restaurant called Le Périgord. In those pre-Instagram, pre-blog days, dining rooms of the city’s most admired establishments were still quiet, even stately places, where your meal proceeded in a mannered, time honored way, like the stages of a Kabuki play. The tables were covered in white linen and decorated with fresh roses. Many of these restaurants (La Caravelle, on 55th street, Le Côte Basque within walking distance) were still run by proprietors like Le Périgord’s Georges Briguet, who met me at the door of his restaurant dressed in his ritual tuxedo and black tie. When I gave him the fake name under which I’d made the reservation, he led me back to a not very good table by the kitchen door, and handed me my menu with a ceremonial bow.
“What’s good today,” I asked, thinking this was the kind of thing a practiced regular was supposed to say to the proprietor of a fancy restaurant.
“You tell me,” he replied with a faint smile, “you’re the critic.”
You can still visit Le Périgord in New York’s Sutton Place neighborhood, as it happens, and the ancient French specialties like cheese soufflé, and pâtés en croûte, are as pleasing as ever in their quirky, dated way. But since that meal more than fifteen years ago, Monsieur Briguet’s world as a restaurateur and tastemaker has changed in all sorts of unimagined ways, and as a practicing dining critic, mine has too. These days, the most talked about restaurants in town tend to be run by bewhiskered, tattooed chefs, not old fashioned Frenchmen dressed in tuxedos. The raucous chef’s culture, which was largely behind closed doors in Briguet’s day—market dining, pork belly, brown spirits, rock n’ roll—is what drives the dining world these days, and it’s possible to eat out in New York City for months at a succession of trendy ramen joints, burger bars, and elevated veggie centric farm to table establishments, and never see a starchy white table cloth (or a vase of fresh roses, for that matter) at all.
With the arrival of the internet, and a more savvy, independent generation of eaters and chefs (many of whom cut their teeth ordering sophisticated latte combinations at Starbucks, instead of microwaved TV dinners) this cozy old alliance of high brow food mandarins and tastemakers has gone up in smoke. The opening of a new restaurant used to be reported to the wide world by critics many weeks after the fact, but thanks to sites like Grubstreet, Eater and Yelp, the average knowledgeable eater knows all about the “hot” new restaurant months before it’s even opened. Some critics in the old days famously also used to employ disguises, but experienced restaurateurs like Briguet generally knew them all, and had their photos plastered all over the kitchen walls. These days, a critic’s photo is plastered all over the internet, making the concept of “anonymity” even more absurd, which is why I decided, several years back to end the charade and “come out” in public by putting my face on the cover of New York magazine.
In the old pre-blog days restaurant critics tended to be like solitary miners, shining their creaky headlamps on discoveries for our rapt readers, but now those of us dinosaurs who still roam the dining landscape (when I started work at New York magazine there were close to ten full time restaurant critics in town, now the number is less than half that) are more like carnival barkers, attempting to herd the crowds of informed, unruly diners from one ephemeral attraction to the next. Members of the food obsessed, Instagram happy Starbucks generation are more informed than their parents about ingredients and cooking techniques, and more confident in their opinions about what does and does not taste good (thanks Yelp!). Thanks to the new mobile smart phone, click-driven culture, the actual reviews that we critics write have gotten shorter, and although the top end of the old star system has eroded (most millennials would rather enjoy a good burger or bowl of ramen than visit a stuffy “four star” French restaurant), the appetite for quickly consumed (and highly subjective) stars and top ten listicles is greater than ever before.
Is this such a bad thing? I’m guessing if you asked Monsieur Briguet, he’d shrug his shoulders, and say “C’est la Vie.” Fashions change, time moves on, and nothing lasts forever. “Haute cuisine” continental dining may in decline, but during my time as a critic, the food world has gone from being a relative sideshow to part of the national conversation, and whether you’re in New York, or Miami, or Portland, Maine, there are more delicious things to eat than ever before. It’s fashionable to say that everyone’s a critic in this madcap, digital world, and that’s true. But I would also argue that this clamor of opinions has made the voice of the old grizzled professional more important than ever before, especially in the booming, highly subjective world of restaurant dining, where the choices of where to spend a buck on your soufflé or garden burrito have never been richer or more confusing, and as Monsieur Briguet will tell you, the experience of even the most practiced gourmand can still change radically depending on what time of day you eat, whether the sous chef (or the ace ramen cook) has a cold that day, and whether or not the hostess decides to seat you by the kitchen door.