Platt Chat: How a Critic Prepares for Fall Opening Season

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Shrimp and grits from Birds & Bubbles, one of this month's biggest openings. Photo: Melissa Hom

Welcome to Platt Chat, the column where New York critic Adam Platt talks with Grub editor Alan Sytsma to discuss the dining world's most pressing issues. Today: How does a critic prepare — both mentally and physically — for fall-opening season in New York?

Alan Sytsma: The fall season will soon be upon us — thought of as the time for New York restaurant openings. As a critic, do you care about the new buzz? Do you have to get into shape for the deluge of new places? Or is it business as usual?
Adam Platt: If you've covering a cultural beat — and that's what restaurants are in this city — the fall is a convivial, celebratory time. In the dining world, everyone’s  back in town after lying like beached whales in the Hamptons or wherever they go. Their taste buds are revived, they're tired of tomato sandwiches and lobster rolls and bags of Cape Cod chips, and, yes, it's time to get back to business. But things have changed. In the old days, openings of grand, reviewable restaurants would proceed like the theatrical season — you'd have productions in the spring and the fall, chefs would come from overseas, and all the critics would line up in their sauce-stained coats to sample the new food and make grandiose pronouncements. But I've noticed over the last few years that there's no real rhythm at all anymore. These days, restaurants just open when they open. Two of this year's bigger productions, by two of the city’s most theatrically minded restaurateurs — Bâtard and Cherche Midi — opened in the depths of summer, for example.

Does that change how you approach things as a critic? Don't year-round openings give you more fodder for reviews?
Your job as a critic is to make sense of the chaos — to try to divine the restaurants that people will care about, and that's harder now. It used to be easy to pick out the big whale restaurants. These days, it's a little daunting, actually. There are huge numbers of decent restaurants all over the place, but the really interesting ones aren’t always as obvious as they used to be, so you have to spend more time scrambling around.

And you don't feel like there's more scrambling in the fall?
Well, I suppose there still is. Even though ambitious restaurants open throughout the year, a lot of heavy hitters do still aim for the fall: Enrique Olvera will open a restaurant, Danny Meyer has a new place, and there's Dirty French, from the Torrisi guys. You have to get to all of these kinds of places before the end of the year. Being a professional eater is not as glamorous as it sounds. You have to don the old feedbag and head out into the maelstrom.

So are you excited to try these restaurants, or do you speak purely from a review standpoint?
Well, the excitement used to be a little more obvious. There used to be more noise surrounding certain openings — a kind of theatrical overture, complete with the banging of cymbals and the crashing of drums. But now, when I look at fall preview coverage, I really don’t know what to think. I love Danny Meyer as much as the next devoted chowhound, but I find myself more excited about taking my daughters to the great new Filipino joint around the corner, Lumpia Shack, or to a place like Mu Ramen. There’s a profusion of decent places to dine, but the ambitious, original, big-money gourmet operations are few and far between.

So, are there places you're not very excited about? Restaurants that you see looming on the horizon, where you know you'll have to go only out of professional obligation?
No. I can say categorically that it’s always enjoyable to eat a decent restaurant meal when somebody else is paying for it. But it's interesting. I asked Gael Greene when I started just how she went out all the time without feeling weary about it at a certain point. Her advice was that the more you do this, the more your appetite for it increases. And I find that's still true. There's always something interesting around the corner, even if these days, it happens to be a bowl of ramen instead of an elaborate dessert soufflé.

Do you think that the decreased prevalence of huge, ambitious restaurants has created less of a need for negative reviews? Critics would rather champion smaller places they like — and if one of these more casual places isn't any good, you can just ignore it instead of trashing it.
There’s some truth to that. As a critic, if I don’t like an anonymous Village bistro or a run-of-the-mill tourist joint in midtown, I usually won’t review it. The rotten-tomato negative reviews tend to be about of the places that everyone wants to know about. The last negative review I wrote was of Tavern on the Green, which was an old-fashioned, Broadway-style culinary opening. But now those kinds of restaurants open maybe once a year — and Tavern on the Green, by the way, also opened in the depths of summer.

Do you think all of this holds true in places outside of New York, too?
Who knows? We write for a New York publication, and despite constant pleadings to my employers, I don’t get to dine much outside the city. I do think that the national decentralization of the restaurant scene has contributed to what we’re talking about. New York isn’t the complete and utter center of the culinary world anymore. Broadway is still Broadway for the theatrical world, and Chelsea is still more or less the established center of the commercial art scene. But ambitious cooks don’t have to parade through town anymore to make their reputations. These days, great restaurants can open anywhere, any time, and the chowhounds will come running. You can open a Thai joint on the windy coast of Maine or a ramen shack in the hollars of West Virginia, and the internet will find you.  

Related: 36 New Restaurants Opening This Fall