There has never been a study on the average shelf life of a professional book, television, or movie critic, but those of us who eat for a living tend to stay on the job longer than most. Before I became the restaurant critic for this magazine in 2000, Gael Greene — who had been given the job in 1968, the year New York Magazine was founded — held on to it fiercely for decades. Some of the greatest critics of my generation, including Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times and A. A. Gill of The Sunday Times in London, expired on the job way before their retirement years, and even my friends and colleagues who have survived the obvious perils of the occupation (budget cuts, creeping drunkenness, heart failure, choking on a stray chicken bone) do so in a way that is decidedly less glamorous than it was in the glory days, when a friend of mine called it “the last great job of the 20th century.”
Some of the reasons for this longevity are obvious, others less so. A steady column that includes lots of free food is a good gig for any working writer, provided you have the constitution for it, and when you work as a prominent restaurant critic in a great dining town like New York, there are many other sorts of perks and privileges that are easy to get used to. You are quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, fawned over. You get to gather your friends and boss them around and treat them to a little party of your own choosing pretty much any day of the week. Most important, and perhaps most intoxicating of all, is the sense of having an all-expenses-paid front-row seat to the life of a great city as the culture moves and changes around you.
During my time on the job, the restaurant and dining world, which once occupied its own eccentric corner of the culture conversation, moved to the very center of things, then simply became part of the mainstream. Thanks to the chaotic wonders of the digital age, diners are more confident and informed than ever, and thanks to writers like Gold and Anthony Bourdain, they don’t see restaurants as stilted, ritual forms of entertainment the way their grandparents did but as windows into cultures from around the globe. Instead of prattling on about the glories of Continental cooking, diners can wax on about vegan or Oaxacan or Jamaican cuisines and will spend hours expounding, over a glass of orange wine, on where to find the finest birria taco in Queens.
The COVID crisis sped up these changes and shot them forward a decade or two, and it did the same for the role of the all-knowing, Anton Ego–style restaurant critic, which has long been marked as something of an endangered species and now, finally, seems poised for extinction. Once upon a time, we ambled from one establishment to another, scribbling notes under the table, dictating dining tastes and trends to a much smaller, more accepting public. These days, the most effective critics are part carnival barker, madly yelling into the TikTok-addled maelstrom of public opinion; part social anthropologist; and part reporter, covering an industry that’s more central to the economic and spiritual well-being of the city than ever before.
Have I done a good job covering these dizzying changes over the years? Probably not, but I’ve done my best. Twenty-two years is a long time to do any one thing, let alone stuff rich and unhealthy foods down your craw on a daily basis, and I’ve felt for a while now that for the benefit of everyone involved — my doctors, my children, my long-suffering editors, and, most of all, my readers — it’s time for a change in tone and perspective. I’ll be staying on at Grub Street and New York as a writer and resident crank, and I will wait along with everyone else to see who is next chosen to challenge orthodoxies and complain bitterly about the quality of the gumbo soup, or the xiao long bao, or the overly pricey vegan tasting menu in their own particular way.
Years ago, when I took this job, Gael invited me to lunch at a now-vanished French restaurant to talk about the routine of reviewing: Yes, this was a real job, she explained. Yes, you should refrain from gobbling everything in sight, and no, you won’t get tired of it, she said, taking a notepad from her handbag and scrawling some scathing observation about our truffled noodles: “I think you’ll find as the days go by that your appetite only increases.”
When I sit down for my own exit interview with the new critic, I’ll probably say the same thing with a few of my own observations thrown in: Disguises are a thing of the past. Resy has made it more or less impossible to book a table with a pseudonym, so ask your companions to make the reservations in their names instead. Try not to draw attention to yourself, and remember that restaurants are always better during their two- or three-month opening window, before the prices rise, chefs shift their attention to other projects, and everything goes to hell. The 5:30 p.m. dining slot is the critic’s friend because it’s the easiest to get, but try to go later because the real spirit of any restaurant arrives only after the night wears on a bit. A table for four is ideal, and limit everyone to a single expense-account drink — otherwise it will just turn into a party.
Even back at home, you’re never really off the clock. You may bolt upright in the middle of the night, trying to figure out if that shooting pain in your chest is owed to the ’roni cups you ingested at the hot new pizza place a few hours earlier or the creeping beginnings of a massive coronary event.
You’ll quickly grow weary of uni and caviar as well as the adjectives you might use (crunchy, silken, funky) to describe the same mind-numbing progression of dishes again and again. The wine lists are always too expensive, the dining rooms are always too loud, and the sushi bros at the next stool over are always yammering about their $30,000 watches.
You may also begin to feel a sneaking sense that you are contributing in some way to a greater gathering calamity, whether that’s by catering to the tastes of the one percent in a city where more than 1 million people are food insecure; gulping down a piece of forbidden, quickly vanishing tuna belly; or paying $25 for a cheeseburger derived from one of a billion or so belching steers that, through no fault of their own, are helping to slowly fry this planet to a crisp.
You’ll never be a regular, and you will miss that feeling because it will be all too rare that you can settle into a comfortable table for a simple bowl of soup, an evening martini on the rocks, or even that most sinful of all afternoon pleasures, a BLT with a large wad of sweet, creamy coleslaw on the side.
But you’ll always have an excuse to check on the quality of the Dover sole at La Grenouille, or the wonton soup at Great N.Y. Noodletown down on the corner of Bayard and Bowery, the way your colleague Jerry Saltz checks up on the old-master paintings at the Met. Most of all, I hope you’ll get the same experience I did in this great international dining city: seeing the whole world under your nose while you sit happily in one place, with a napkin tucked firmly under your collar, before paying for dinner with someone else’s money and waddling home for the night to sleep in your very own bed.
The Life of a Restaurant Critic
Platt’s Favorite Restaurants Ever
“It’s midtown’s great neighborhood restaurant, but it’s also a great Manhattan destination. And it’s the kind of restaurant that represents both the city and the world at large in a way that almost feels nostalgic today. When a restaurant like Le Bernardin leaves the scene, there won’t be another like it in the city.”
“There was a carryout restaurant that occupied a double-wide space on Sixth Avenue. The minute COVID came, it was gone. It was a master of the carryout art, which involves perfect timing so the crust on the General Tso’s chicken remains hard as a rock and the fresh broccoli is cooked by the time you arrive back home.”
The Hardest Reservation of All Time
“The original location, when it was a tiny counter, had a famously horrible online-reservation system. I don’t even remember how I got in, but it hadn’t been open very long, and I went only once before I wrote the review. That seemed to upset people who, back in the day, had certain notions about how critics should time their write-ups.”
The Best Thing Platt Ever Ate …
“Foie gras soup dumplings at Annisa, Anita Lo’s now-closed restaurant in the West Village. It was my first review, and the minute I tasted those popping, luxuriant dumplings, I said to myself, Platty, you’re in a different world now.”
… and the Worst
“Squid risotto from a mercifully defunct Japanese restaurant on University Place. ‘Squid risotto’ doesn’t sound that bizarre, but this interpretation consisted of a sludgy mass of rice with chopped-up squid in it, served inside the body of a giant squid. The kitchen caught on fire the night I was there, and everybody left. The restaurant didn’t stay open much longer.”
The Closed Restaurant Platt Misses Most
“That was a great little room and one of the first high-chef establishments to combine style and home-cooked simplicity with elevated technique. It was not crazy to get into, and there was a lot of talent inside that kitchen. It had these spindly breadsticks at the bar and meatballs that I still think about. I reviewed it, but onlywith a paragraph or two — I didn’t know it would become the seminal restaurant of its time. It essentially created the model for casual elegance that defined the next decade of restaurants.”
The Reviews Platt Might Reconsider Now
“I think my initial review was filled with endless adjectives of praise, but it turned out this style of restaurant opened the door to all sorts of regrettable trends, like sushi-bro culture and the denuding of the oceans, to name a few. I’ve since gone back to Masa as a private citizen with well-to-do friends, and you just feel like you’re being mercilessly ripped off.”
“They put me in the back room and it was a madhouse, so I described the scene. Was it a little harsh? Probably. I’ve recommended lunches at the front of the restaurant, which is a much more peaceful experience.”
Who Makes the Best Dining Companion …
“You want someone who is a bit pliable as well as knowledgeable. They probably don’t have kids because you need to be able to meet up with very little notice.”
… and the Worst
“Anyone who won’t listen to what you say. You need them to order certain dishes, and you don’t want them to respond, ‘I don’t like that, and I don’t like that.’ It used to be vegans, but that’s changed over time, and these days vegans are quite useful. The absolute worst are people who treat the meal as a party instead of the professional event that it is. I remember a young French gentleman in from Paris; he was somebody’s friend. He just drank all the way through dinner. He didn’t become unruly, but he did throw up on my shoes once we got back outside.”
The Actor Who Hangs Out in Great Restaurants
“I seem to find myself next to Jake Gyllenhaal quite a bit. He once came up behind me to say hello while I was dining with a genial Australian. I tried to introduce everyone, like, ‘Oh, this is — ,’ but then, being as shocked as we were, I forgot Jake’s name. ‘Don’t worry, mate,’ said my guest. ‘I know who he is.’ ”
The Actor Who Was Not Actually Hanging Out in Great Restaurants
“Paul Liebrandt thought I was my brother Oliver. It happens sometimes. People get excited that there’s a famous actor in their restaurant before they realize it’s me.”
The Restaurateurs Who Took Out Their Anger in Public
“I believe ‘Platt’s a miserable fuck’ was the direct quote.”
“He sent an open letter to Eater that called me, among other not-inaccurate things, bald, overweight, and out of touch.”
The Guys From Carbone
“They kicked me out of one of their other restaurants, ZZ’s Clam Bar, which I viewed as a miracle from Heaven, but I think they quickly regretted it. That kind of thing doesn’t happen as often as people think, and sometimes I wonder why.”
The Hardest Review to Write
“Negative reviews are more difficult than positive reviews, especially as you grow older and kinder. The most difficult are negative reviews of chefs you respect. My recent Commerce Inn review was like that. I wouldn’t call it negative, but it was difficult.”
What It’s Really Like to Eat With Platt
By Alan Sytsma
He’s never the first person to arrive. He has either instructed you to make the reservation or he sent you a message a few hours earlier, telling you where he’s going and asking if you know anyone who wants to join. On rare occasions, he’ll text people while he’s sitting inside a restaurant to see if they can swing by. There are almost always four people at the table, unless Platt has invited too many people and a few stragglers come as well. Members of the Platt family are common, and there’s a rotating group of regular co-diners, like Chef Jeff and Schwab.
Everyone has to order something different, and if Platt has already been to the restaurant in question, he’ll tell you what he ate before. If a dish was really impressive on his first visit, he’ll allow someone to order it again, but in general, he invited you along only so he could order as much food as possible. After everyone has chosen — carefully coordinating separate appetizers and entrées — Platt will inevitably add four or five more things for everyone to share.
The food takes forever to come out. The reality is that it’s much more enjoyable to eat a meal without a critic. When Platt’s in the house, the mood in the dining room is noticeably less relaxed and the lulls between courses can start to feel interminable, even if Platt himself is always a chatty, enjoyable dining companion. When the dishes finally do arrive, our critic will try everything, tapping out notes on his phone and declaring certain things worthy of “10,000 stars” while others warrant immediate disdain. Fussy presentations don’t impress him, nor do elaborate garnishes — the food either tastes good or it doesn’t.
Dessert is a nonnegotiable must-order, even though you’re wondering how two hours have already passed (those appetizers really did take a long time to come out). Then Platt, of course, takes care of the bill and says his polite good-byes, like the gentleman he is.