In Praise of Hype

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Very excited about Bruno's lamb pizza.
Very excited about Bruno's lamb pizza. Photo: Hero Images Inc.

This week in the New York Times, restaurant critic Pete Wells gives the internet zero stars. Food writers have become shills for restaurant PR, early tastemakers — “bloggers, Yelpers, Instagrammers, and others” — throw blind praise around with wanton disregard for actual quality. Eater’s critics hit Fuku the day it opened. Here at Grub Street, we liked some bread that a restaurant was about to add to the menu. It’s all just become too much.

The occasion for Wells’s critique is a review of Bruno, the three-month-old pizza place near Union Square that has received a solid amount of attention since opening. It’s got problems, Wells says. And yet:

I don’t want to convict the restaurant’s chefs and owner for [Bruno’s] problems because the real killer, as O. J. Simpson would say, is other people.

More accurately, it’s a small group of people like me whose approval can lift some restaurants from the teeming primordial swamp of contenders, and whose premature praise and willingness to play down discomfort and inconvenience enable problems like Bruno’s.

Wells hits Bruno with no stars and this closing sentiment:

The chefs may eventually prepare plates that taste as interesting as they look. They might start by eating their own cooking blindfolded. The rest of us, the critics and bloggers and Yelpers, might try the reverse. Maybe it’s time to take off our blindfolds.

Is the praise surrounding Bruno — one of the few current buzzed-about restaurants that doesn’t employ a PR agency — really so misguided? Read reviews from other critics, and you might come away with the impression that Bruno is … actually pretty good. At the very least, it’s interesting enough to warrant some conversation. New York’s own Adam Platt wrote, in an even-handed two-star review, that the restaurant’s best pizzas “are worth the price of admission.” (As he said when I asked him about the review today: “I didn’t give it two stars because of the internet.”) Also last week, Eater’s Ryan Sutton dropped this: “Bruno, despite its flaws, is the most compelling and creative expression of a pizzeria since Roberta’s opened in 2008.” Pretty high praise. Over at Bloomberg, Tejal Rao called Bruno’s peaches-and-ham pie a must-eat pizza. And about that bread course Grub Street loved (a claim we stand by): It does pop up as a special, but a chef tells us that the scarcity is due to unexpectedly high demand; in order to keep up, they’d need to build a dedicated prep station, which they haven’t yet done.

Wells’s broad complaints about food media in general would surely have to include the Times, which is not immune to breathless praise. Two quick examples: This week’s “front burner” column features the sentence “The couture steaks that Ralph Lauren has introduced at the Polo Bar deserve his top-of-the-line purple label.” (That line appeared online — accompanied by a nice photo — on the very day those steaks became available to the public.) In a “Hungry City” write-up of the Happiest Hour’s burger this past summer, Jeff Gordinier got past the fact that the staff wouldn’t give him an actual seat, forcing him to eat while kneeling on the floor, writing, “Maybe the servers knew that as long as I had that burger in front of me, I wasn’t very likely to complain.” That kind of compliment — which showed up a few months after the place opened — probably got some people pumped to go check out that burger, but talk about playing down discomfort and inconvenience.

People like talking about the food they love. All the internet has done is accelerate and intensify that chatter, just like it’s done with every other topic. At this point it’s probably safe to assume that the pendulum won’t be swinging back. And here’s news that won’t be surprising: People who write about food and restaurants for a living — both on the internet or even in print publications — try a lot of things before they’re available to the public that aren’t all that good. When that happens, we (usually) don’t write about it. But when we first encounter something like a Cronut, a killer chicken sandwich from Shake Shack, Brooks Headley’s unthinkably good veggie burgers, or chicken potpie that’s been turned into a luxury item — to name a few things that people raved about from day one that did, in fact, turn out to be great — of course we’re going to want to tell people about it.

This stuff is supposed to be fun. It’s fun to get excited about people making amazing-looking doughnuts in the middle of New Jersey. It’s fun to debate the relative merits of great burgers (that Happiest Hour burger, by the way, is fine, but it’s definitely not good enough to warrant kneeling on a grimy bar floor).

Getting it right matters, of course, as does transparency about why someone is heaping praise on a certain thing. And just as critics disagree on various restaurants (Bruno included, it seems), people will disagree about which chocolate-chip cookies are truly amazing, or which sandwiches are the most awesome. So what? That’s kind of the point. Even if a specific dish or experience doesn’t live up to heightened expectations, there will always be more meals to come — and you should probably start getting excited for those immediately. They’re going to be sooooo epic.

In Praise of Hype