Welcome to Platt Chat, the column where New York critic Adam Platt talks with Grub editor Alan Sytsma about the dining world's most pressing issues. This week: the delicate art of the no-star slam.
Alan Sytsma: You dropped a goose egg in your review this week, a critical move that readers tend to like under the right circumstances. In this case, it was Tavern on the Green. What, in your mind, warrants a moment when it's appropriate to call attention to a given restaurant's badness?
Adam Platt: Some critics — whether it's books movies or whatever — make a career out of hammering things, and others do it lightly. Personally, I don't look around for restaurants that deserve zero-star reviews, although there are plenty of them around. In the case of Tavern on the Green, I went there after it had been open for six weeks. The meal wasn't wonderful, and if it hadn't been so prominent a place, I might have gone back much later, or maybe just conveniently forgotten about it altogether. But Tavern on the Green is arguably the most famous, most profitable restaurant in the history of the city. As a critic, you can't ignore a restaurant like that.
Having heard the opinions of other people who ate there, and having unfortunately had some disappointing meals there myself, I think a person could make the case that your review actually kind of went easy on the place.
Chefs are always getting mad at me for being too tough on them. Often they fly into a rage over a particular review, even though I've said nice things about them in the past. The last zero-star review I gave, I think, was to Michael White's steakhouse, Costata. In the past I've praised his food to the skies, and I'm a great admirer of his cooking; I just didn't like that restaurant. He still took umbrage, which is fine, that's his right. But diners — the everyday people who go out on the town and shell out their own cash for this food — are always telling me that I'm too nice. At Tavern, the people I went with were actively agitating for a harsh review, and some of the comments they made while we were eating our dinner were way more more vicious than anything I said in print.
So it's not just that this restaurant is mediocre, it's that it doesn't deliver on a promise that's implied by the space or the price?
Tavern on the Green is such a unique property, and I think people just like being there. I think the new renovation is much more in tune with the times than the old kitschy version. It's stylish, but the food, in my view, doesn't really do it justice. Instead of doing a dog-and-pony imitation of "stylish" farm-to-table cooking, I think they might have been much better off with the usual garden-variety pasta dish, a decent steak, and maybe French fries instead of chic, though slightly stale, patatas bravas. I went for brunch, too. Brunch is a fat, slow pitch: It's simple to do it in a way that people find palatable. But we got served some leaden kind of omelette, the bacon was extravagantly greasy, and, like everything at the restaurant, absurdly overpriced. In the end, I think it came down to the prices, which are quite stratospheric. The entrees are 30, 40, even 50 bucks. That, combined with the mediocre quality of the food, I think pushed the restaurant into the valley of the goose eggs.
When you're at a restaurant for the second or third time and it's awful and you're mulling the idea of zero stars, do you think about the effect on the staff? After all, a bad movie review doesn't necessarily affect an actor's livelihood the way a negative restaurant review can impact a chef, who might lose his or her job.
Well, I don't think I have the power to close a restaurant, but you do think about it. The Tavern happens to have an open kitchen, so you can see the cooks laboring away. All of them, I'm sure, are trying as hard as they can to do a good job, and feeding 700 people isn't easy. I've never enjoyed writing negative reviews, but in the end, as a critic, your loyalty is to the customer, not the kitchen. Your job is to tell people how to spend their money in a town filled with expensive places to eat. At the same time, I try to follow that old journalistic adage, "You comfort the afflicted and you afflict the comfortable.” If I don't like a place on the first visit or two, I'll often not write about it. But like I said, Tavern on the Green is hard to ignore, and I'm sure the institution will survive this review. Who knows? They might even get good write-ups from other critics. If they don't, a zero-star review isn't the end of the world. In my experience, the best chefs and restaurateurs will use a bad review as a guide, and even as a way to improve.