Does a review from Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni count as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Tina Braunstein, a former bartender at Blue Hill at Stone Barns who’s suing the restaurant for wrongful termination, is hoping so. In a trial that begins tomorrow, both Bruni’s review and a private e-mail exchange with the venue’s owner will be submitted as evidence, because he praised the bartender. But for the average reader of the Times, the e-mails offer a window into the dance between the paper’s powerful food critic and the restaurants he covers.
Braunstein, who is seeking approximately $400,000 in damages, accuses Blue Hill of failing to take action in response to her complaints that the restaurant’s general manager, Philippe Gouze, referred to her repeatedly as a “bitch” and a “diva,” and criticized her for poor performance. (Gouze fired her after fewer than eight months on the job.) In response to Braunstein’s allegations, one of the restaurant’s owners named in the suit, David Barber (brother of chef Dan Barber), and his lawyers have argued in court documents that Braunstein did not perform her duties “at a level befitting a three-star restaurant,” and that she was rude to customers. (Neither Barber nor his lawyer responded immediately to requests for comment.)
Which is where Bruni comes in. Braunstein’s lawyers will introduce as evidence Bruni’s 2004 review of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the hopes that it will argue for her performance as “a superstar bartender,” in the words of one of her lawyers, D. Maimon Kirschenbaum. Bruni’s review mentions Braunstein by name three times, including in its opening sentence and in its final paragraph.
In addition to Bruni’s glowing review, a private e-mail exchange between the critic and David Barber will also be introduced to demonstrate Braunstein’s positive impact on the restaurant. In the exchange, dated the evening of July 28, 2004, the day Bruni’s review appeared in the Times, Barber invited Bruni to dine at the restaurant’s Greenwich Village location at a later date. “[I]f you would be so kind as to let us know in advance — we’ll make sure Tina Braunstein is on hand for the occasion,” Barber wrote. After some pleasantries — “Call me Frank. We’ll probably never meet, but whether it’s an e-mail or telephone conversation, please call me Frank, or I’ll have to call you Mr. Barber. (Smile.)” — Bruni hinted that the demands of his schedule would likely prevent a subsequent visit, but he added, “And say hello to Tina, and tell her I’m the guy who was chattering about the brother who had OK’d rose/blush wines.”
But Braunstein probably already knew who Bruni was (a fact to which she testified in her deposition, according to her lawyer). And when Bruni was subpoenaed by Braunstein’s team to testify — the subpoena was ultimately quashed by a judge after Times lawyer George Freeman argued for reporter’s privilege — Freeman revealed that “Bruni later learned that on his first visit to Blue Hill the staff there recognized him as the New York Times restaurant critic — hence, [Braunstein’s] actions would have been artificially colored by that knowledge, and not be typical of her normal performance.”
Given that the anonymity and objectivity of restaurant critics is a subject of perennial debate, it’s somewhat ironic that the Times’ lawyer would argue that Bruni didn’t get typical treatment. And for Bruni’s readers, it casts new a light on his experience at Stone Barns: Is it still a three-star restaurant if you aren’t Frank Bruni?