Above the Fray: How Restaurants Become Impervious to Criticism

New York's Grand Central Oyster Bar.
New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

I first heard the term “shit line” from a British journalist who’d spent years in the trenches of Fleet Street. He was describing a venerable old gasbag editor of his, a once-reputable gentleman who was now beyond reproach, despite the fact that he drank himself senseless at lunchtime and took lengthy afternoon naps. This was not meant as a putdown. On the contrary, those who ascend above the mythical demarcation are impervious to the random quibbles and criticisms of everyday life. Those below (i.e., most of us) are judged by harsher standards, and doomed to a life of striving and disappointment. But to be above the shit line is to enter the realm of immortality and myth. There are politicians who qualify (but, like Bill Clinton, many tend to be retired from politics — or dead), and actors (Bill Murray, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts), as well as authors, some of whom are geniuses (Philip Roth), and others whose books sell millions of copies no matter what kind of drivel they write. The same goes for restaurants, of course. Anyone who has spent time eating around this great dining city knows that there are plenty of treasured establishments (and one or two chefs) that have achieved an enviable, bulletproof status, whether they deserve it or not.

Take the famous Brooklyn chophouse Peter Luger, which I last visited a couple of months ago. When we arrived, the mobbed dining rooms seemed to be on the verge of riot. The elderly waiters who served our table were bored and disinterested, and several looked slightly cadaverous under the bright, unflattering light. The famous beefsteak tomatoes were half ripe, the house bacon was flabby, and the steaks were inconsistent and ridiculously priced. But it didn’t matter. When the food clattered down on the table, we attacked it like wolves, and when the absurdly large bill arrived, our host happily paid the huge sum with his personal Peter Luger card.
I know plenty of steak aficionados who will defend the Luger porterhouse with their dying breath — and plenty who won’t. Like everything in the New York food world, this mythical status is subject to endless argument and debate. What follows, then, is a kind of personal 11-point checklist, which I’ve compiled over the course of my culinary wanderings around town. The next time you visit your favorite big-city establishment, look around. If you count at least five of these telltale characteristics, it’s safe to say your beloved restaurant has made the cut.
• There will be flash bulbs in the dining room: There are all sorts of intrepid food tourists in this city, but when people start visiting your dining establishment from far-off destinations like Kansas City, Spokane, Washington, and Beijing — and taking pictures so they can show their friends back home — chances are the restaurant resides above the line. (Not that it’s a bad thing: We’ve noticed the flickering of flash bulbs in spots like Per Se and Le Bernardin, and when was the last time you weren’t happy with your food at that beloved downtown tourist-bus destination, Katz’s Deli?)
• The food will be simple: Gourmet trends come and go, but a steak dinner is forever. Ditto a pastrami sandwich (the Carnegie Deil); iconic pizza (John’s); hot dogs (Nathan’s); and that great, post-millennial favorite, the cupcake (Magnolia Bakery).
• Look for really, really long lines: The longer the line, the greater the chance diners have abandoned all reason and are in full-blown hysteria mode. See, for example, Grimaldi’s pizza, which would probably have a line outside the door even if they started selling chunks of charcoal wrapped in cellophane.
• It could very well be the anchor of a huge franchise: A second, say, Babbo in Vegas or Singapore might not guarantee above-the-line immortality for the original, but 20 or more Nobu (or Shake Shack) outposts located around the world will do the trick.

• It helps to have a really popular TV show: If you don’t believe me, try visiting the original Carlo’s Bakery, of Cake Boss fame, in Hoboken, where my daughter and I waited in three separate lines, for a total of two hours, to sample cannoli that were no better than what you can purchase at your friendly neighborhood Korean deli.
• … or a really popular signature dish: Junior’s wouldn’t be Junior’s without that cheesecake, and without the famous house burger, JG Melon is just another bar. And without the legendary porterhouse for two — doused with the sizzling suet, and served on a platter tipped just so — I submit that Luger would have disappeared into the mists of history long ago.
• The older the restaurant, the better: See McSorely’s Ale House (est. ~1854), Katz’s (1888), the Grand Central Oyster Bar (1913), and the hallowed Keens Steakhouse (1885), where it’s still a perverse pleasure to stare at those musty clay pipes on the ceiling, while chewing on a gnarly, century-old mutton chop.
• Ancient waiters are a good sign, too: Like flash bulbs and the ye olde signature dish, ancient, surly waiters are a sure sign of restaurant immortality. In general, the more ancient and surly, the further you are above the line.
• The food is the “best” (even if, maybe, it isn’t): Sure, it’s possible to dine like a king in esteemed, bulletproof establishments like Nobu or La Grenouille. But if your miso black cod or dover sole happens on that particular evening to taste like glorified cafeteria food, don’t bother telling anyone, because chances are they won’t listen, or care.
• There’s a curious lack of celebrity chefs: Sure, we love René Redzepi and Ferran Adrià as much as the next breathless food snob. But we’re betting the now-anonymous kitchen at Balthazaar will be churning out so-so steak-frites long after the public loses its taste for delicately foraged sea whelks on beds of forest moss.
• Entire cities can exist above the line: Legendary food towns like Paris, Barcelona, and Rome ascended into the realm of foodie immortality long ago. But in this era of the globe-trotting, Instagram-happy gastronaut, new arrivals (Copenhagen; San Sebastian; Charleston, South Carolina; Portland, Oregon, and, yes, Nashville) are being added at a frightening rate.

Above the Fray: How Restaurants Become Impervious to Criticism