The food fight between Frank Bruni and Jeffrey Chodorow.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Feb. 23 2007 6:07 PM

Restaurateur Bites Critic

The food fight between Frank Bruni and Jeffrey Chodorow.

Jeffrey Chodorow's letter. Click image to expand.

"Hooray for Bruni! He's made it!" Those were my first thoughts last Wednesday morning when I read Jeffrey Chodorow's ranting advertisement in the New York Times Dining section.

Objecting to Frank Bruni's no-star review of his new restaurant Kobe Club that ran in the previous week's paper, Chodorow yelped like a stuck pig, questioning Bruni's credentials as a food critic (something he never would have done had the review been favorable), and even his integrity by claiming the review was "a personal attack."

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This was not the first time a negative restaurant review engendered such a violent and costly response in the Times (estimates in the press for what Chodorow spent on the full-page ad range from $30,000 to more than $80,000). During my stint as that newspaper's food critic between 1976 and 1984, there must have been at least half-a-dozen such ads, all greatly appreciated as a source of unexpected revenue, albeit at a paltry $10,000 a shot. "We make more money when you give a bad review than when you give a good one," A.M. "Abe" Rosenthal, then the executive editor, used to say.

Among full-page diatribes over negative reviews that I gave was one written as a letter to the owner of the Assembly Steak House, then at Rockefeller Center. It assured the owner how wrong I had been, and was signed, "Your loving father …" A bygone Chinese restaurant, Dish of Salt, sprang for a page declaring that I had never been there, thus creating a huge fight between the Times and me. Such copy was supposed to be vetted and anything that impugned the critic's integrity was to be deleted. The claim that I had never been to the restaurant had slipped by, but an editor's note correcting the ad soon followed. Shelly Fireman, owner of several New York restaurants repeatedly ran half-page ads over my review inviting—or, really, daring—me to review his now-extinct Fiorello on Third Avenue.

Shortly after I left, the gourmet marketplace Zabar's took a one-column ad objecting to Marian Burros' negative evaluation of their caviar, stating that they would accept such criticism from me, but not from her. Their confidence in me, I am sure, rested strictly on my previous favorable reports. 

Bryan Miller, the restaurant critic after Burros, inspired a similar tirade from Patsy's, the old-landmark Italian restaurant, when in 1989 Miller questioned whether any of the celebrities whose photographs were on the wall had ever been to the restaurant. Patsy's refuted his aspersions in an ad partly paid for by Frank Sinatra, who, along with other famous devotees, allowed supportive letters to be included in that ad. The Times published an editor's note both about that assertion and some factual errors that were in the review.

Chodorow, of course, was an idiot to have run such an ad. For one thing, it does worlds of good for the critic, indicating he or she has a strong following, and that his or her words can make or break a dining place—in itself a measure of proven dependability. Chodorow questions Bruni's credentials, but one might also ask: What qualifies Chodorow to be a restaurateur? Simply having eaten out a lot since childhood, as he explains on his new blog, doesn't quite do it. Considering his hit-or-miss record—with disastrous results at the defunct Rocco's and Caviar and Banana, and two previous incarnations of Mix in New York, yet with successful results at China Grill, Asia de Cuba, and Ono (despite lackluster food)—one might well question his erratic judgment.

But the most damaging result to Chodorow's restaurant from his blow-up is the added exposure of the negative review to so many who may never have read the original. In this case, also, Chodorow claims to have had some positive ratings but cites none specifically, while the restaurant critics for New York magazine and the New York Post agreed with Bruni and panned Kobe Club, give or take a dish or two here and there.

Frank Bruni will have the last word, of course, as we in the press always do. But I don't envy his dilemma when he has to review Chodorow's next creation, Wild Salmon, promised to spawn shortly. Bending over backward not to hate it and thus suggest revenge, he might love it too much, proving that he is fair. Stay tuned.

Mimi Sheraton, a former New York Times food critic, is the author ofEating My Words: An Appetite for Life, among other books.