Ever since it opened in 2004, chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se has been considered one of New York City's, and maybe the world's, very best restaurants. But this week, that reputation received a major reassessment from New York Times critic Pete Wells, who aside from being perhaps the first true master of the viral food review, has also become something even more notable: a kind of populist hero.*
Per Se was one of six restaurants with a coveted four-star rating from the Times. Wells knocked it down to two. While he had some harsh words for the kitchen—God help the poor soul responsible for “the lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water”—his biggest qualm appears to be price. Per Se's nine-course tasting menu costs $325, service included, but the restaurant charges extra for some of the really good stuff, like a $175 risotto showered in white truffles, $75 for a “majestic” caviar dish, or $40 for foie gras that substitutes for an otherwise ho hum salad. It's possible to have a lovely experience at Keller's New York temple, Wells tells us. But in the end, “Per Se is among the worst food deals in New York.”
The key word there is, of course, deal. Sure, this is an exorbitantly expensive meal for the vast majority of people. But what distinguishes Wells as a reviewer—or at least his most popular reviews—is his fierce emphasis on value and fairness. Other Times critics have skewered mediocre establishments for their outrageous prices. But Wells consistently assesses restaurants through this lens and brings a special verve to the task—his review of Kappo Masa below the Gagosian Gallery is a master class in the genre—and also aims his rifle sights high. Very high. If the man has a definitive cri de coeur, it's probably his 2013 review of Daniel, which also lost a four-star rating because Wells felt the restaurant gave lesser service to diners the staff did not consider VIPs. Suspicious he was being recognized, the writer even brought an anonymous Times colleague to eat at another table to test whether his experience would be any different (it was). A “restaurant can’t be blamed for trying to impress a critic,” Wells wrote. “It can be faulted, though, for turning its best face away from the unknowns, the first-timers, the birthday splurgers, the tourists. They are precisely the people who would remember a little coddling at a place like Daniel for years.”
That's not exactly the stuff of a Bernie Sanders rally, but it's righteous in its own way. Thanks to food's climb up the cultural ladder, diners at pricey destination restaurants such as Per Se and Daniel are not all bankers with expense accounts. Many, if not most, of them are splurging after saving up for the experience, the way some people would for a vacation. Owners and chefs know this. They rely on it to pay the bills. But with customers risking a not insignificant portion of their disposable incomes in the hope of enjoying a truly memorable night out, value counts. At the same time, an ungodly number of reservations are driven by things like San Pellegrino's list of the world’s “best restaurants,” which are voted on by judges who may or may not have actually eaten at them. Hence, it's nice to have someone like Wells talking openly about when the hype is worth the cash.
You can also see Wells' consumer-protection impulse at work in his famously searing takedown of Guy Fieri's Times Square outpost, in which he pondered whether the Food Network star had ever eaten at his own restaurant. (“Is this how you roll in Flavor Town?”) Lambasting an obvious tourist trap might seem like punching down for a Times critic—an easy way to get laughs. But try to remember that Fieri is cynically bilking said tourists out of their money for plates of tasteless calamari they could easily get at bars somewhere on Ninth Avenue. A Gray Lady review might not stop him. But why give the guy a pass? Why shouldn't a food critic care whether middle-class out-of-towners enjoy themselves?
Dining, in the end, is a transaction—money for experience. Wells has done a wonderful job underlining that fact over and over, while taking restaurateurs to task when they don't give every single customer his or her dollar's worth.
*Correction, Jan. 13, 2016: This post originally stated that Wells’ review ran on Jan. 13. It ran Jan. 12.