Yesterday we reported that Esquire restaurant critic John Mariani was in town for dinner at Graham Elliot, and it was like a bomb went off. "I can’t believe that asshole has the audacity to even call himself a restaurant critic," one disgruntled chef emailed to us. A publicist told us "I hate letting him in the door, even though of course we can’t say no. We all feel dirty after he leaves." Sky Full of Bacon blogger Mike Gebert ran a post calling Mariani his "arch-nemesis," railing against his "coastal snobbery" and "jawdropping pretension."
Mariani is the gatekeeper to and primary author of Esquire’s influential Best New Restaurants list, so you’d think folks would be going out of their way to be nice to him. Thing is, that seems to be exactly what Mariani expects: Mariani fully eschews anonymity, and goes so far as to announce his presence to restaurateurs by distributing business cards. (At least, that’s what he reportedly did while dining at The Bristol the other night.) "He’s given me his card before," our chef contact told us. "And so of course I gave him one of the best meals my kitchen has ever made. It made me question my integrity as a chef."
Dave Beran, the chef de cuisine at Alinea, was dining at The Bristol while Mariani was there, and wrote about the experience on Twitter: "Level of douchbagery astonished me," he tweeted. "Had recipe on the back of their card for the bartender to reproduce. Daiquiri, really? It’s like going into Alinea with a recipe for creme Carmel."
In another tweet, Beran (who never actually used Mariani’s name) reported that the writer accessorized his meal with a tabletop decibel meter and thermometer. They’re standard tools for taking objective measures of certain restaurants’ attributes, sure, but the notion of objectivity gets a little screwy when you take into account that according to one of our sources, earlier in the day Mariani had dined at a certain restaurant that never, ever opens for lunch — except for that day, for him.
Distaste for Mariani isn’t a new thing — back in 2005, he used the pages of Esquire to thumb his nose at the boundary-pushing cuisine at Alinea and Moto, dismissing it as unnecessary and unsuccessful smoke and mirrors. In response, Moto chef-owner Homaro Cantu suggested that the snub was a direct reaction to his restaurant refusing to accomodate Mariani’s demands. Cantu accused Mariani of sending "a four-page list of requests" in advance of his visit, "asking the restaurant to pay for everything from cab fare to his hotel bill — requests the restaurant did not honor and Mariani denies he asked for." In that same year, Mariani categorically excluded the newly-opened Schwa from the Best New Restaurants list, telling Time Out Chicago that he didn’t even visit the restaurant.
Nor is frustration and disgust with Mariani’s modus operandi limited to Chicago. In his book The Making of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman called out Mariani as a critic who accepts free meals. In his memoir, New York restaurateur Danny Meyer wrote of a critic who “welcomed being ‘hosted.’” Meyer never identified the critic, but speculation on Gawker and Eater strongly suggested Mariani. [Note: The original version of this item suggested that Danny Meyer identified Mariani as the critic in question. This is not the case.]
In 2005, the L.A. Times ran a scathing critique of Mariani’s practice of failing to disclose that he visits restaurants under his real name, and that many of his meals are fully or partially comped. Scott Martelle, the piece’s author, said "A review based on a ‘comped’ meal, especially when the chef knows the reviewer is in the house, can result in a radically skewed perception of a restaurant’s normal performance. And it raises serious questions about the reviewer’s integrity."
In response to the flood of hostility towards Mariani’s practices, Esquire has hedged their bets and no longer refers to Mariani as a "restaurant reviewer" or "critic," but rather is a "freelance correspondent" for the publication. (We got in touch with Esquire about this article, but they declined to comment.) This might indemnify the magazine to a degree, but it raises the further question of why they continue to call the list "Best New Restaurants." If Mariani isn’t a critic — if he isn’t someone whose stock in trade is the issuing of opinions — then the qualifier "Best" does seem a little inaccurate. Perhaps "Restaurants That Have Been Appropriately Solicitous Towards John Mariani"?
Update: Mariani’s editor at Esquire, Ryan D’Agostino, comes to his defense.