Steakhouse take-down in New York City

Food reviews exemplify the timeless power of print

By Carlee Berkenkemper

Elm Staff Writer

“Dinner was good last night” might be heard as one walks through Hodson Hall. In our daily lives and across continents and cultures, food is ubiquitous. Food writing is its own distinct form of journalism; it attempts to expand upon the “good” or “bad” in describing something we all rely upon.

It was the supposed failure of a previously renowned eatery that made headlines before the new year.

On Oct. 29, 2019, The New York Times famed food critic Pete Wells sent food writers, critics, and consumers ablaze with his zero-star review, “Peter Luger Used to Sizzle. Now it Sputters.”

Peter Luger’s Steakhouse is considered a New York City classic. Established in 1887, the Brooklyn icon has won countless awards over the last century for its famous aged beef served in an old-school German beer hall. Their website promotes that their beef is solely USDA Prime, and despite exorbitant prices, the restaurant has historically only accepted cash.

Wells has frequented the restaurant since the 1990s, but as time has changed, so has his tune. Wells wrote, “I know there was a time the German fried potatoes were brown and crunchy, because I eagerly ate them each time I went. Now they are mushy, dingy, gray and sometimes cold. I look forward to them the way I look forward to finding a new, irregularly shaped mole.”

The scathing review also included a comparison between waiting for a table at the restaurant and waiting in notorious DMV lines and a description of the shrimp cocktail as “cold latex dipped in ketchup and horseradish”.

As comical as such descriptions may seem, such criticism carries the potential for real impact. 

The zero-star review immediately trended on Twitter and sparked an intense debate that included articles ranging from the New York Post’s “These Iconic NYC Restaurants are just as Terribly Overrated as Peter Luger” to Insider’s “I had lunch at Peter Luger after The New York Times gave the iconic steakhouse a scathing zero-star review, and ate one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.”

“The art of food writing lies not just in documenting what you ate and whether it was good or bad but in conjuring up the magic or failure of a meal through words,” said Kate Livie, humanities professor for the Center for Environment and Society’s Chesapeake Semester. She is a Chesapeake writer and educator, author of “Chesapeake Oysters: The Bay’s Foundation and Future” and regularly contributes reviews to Edible Delmarva.

Livie makes a point to only review establishments if she has something positive to share, while Wells believes in his professional duty to pen negative reviews if he feels potential customers are at risk of being cheated.

Wells defended his original stance in a follow-up by Times Insider titled “How a Food Critic Plots his Pans,” claiming that he received 10 positive comments for every negative one. “The best part of criticism … is the opportunity to sing out when something comes along that’s new, different, exciting, paradigm-shifting or even just better than average,” Wells wrote.

This is not the first time Wells has denounced popular restaurants, as he was previously known for his take down of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square.

On Nov. 13, 2012, The New York Times published Wells’ zero-star review, “As Not Seen on T.V.,” which begins by addressing the celebrity chef and restaurant owner, asking if he had eaten at his own establishment. The review is comprised entirely of rhetorical questions such as, “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”

After less than six years in business, Fieri’s restaurant closed in 2017, and despite the article being published several years prior, Wells’ criticism is still attributed by some for the eatery’s failure.

In response to the Peter Luger debate, Forbes released an article entitled, “Will Pete Wells’ Scathing NY Times Review Kill a New York Institution?”

Such outcry begs the question — in the modern world of socially sourced restaurant reviews, when anyone can anonymously share opinions through platforms such as Yelp and Google, what makes newspaper articles like Wells’ review still so powerful?

Social media undoubtedly enables convenient and widespread dissemination of articles published by newspapers. Though the internet has been flooded with comments of people saying they have never visited the steakhouse and now certainly never will, the cultural icon remains unconcerned.

Grandson of Peter Luger’s founders and general manager, David Berson, issued a statement saying, “We know who we are and have always been. The best steak you can eat. Not the latest kale salad.”

Food is a basic need, and people like to enjoy it, making food reviews often very persuasive. Food writing, put simply, is powerful.

Livie said, “Food is a marvelous medium through which we can connect people and bring them together … Food writing, when it’s good, should be intensely creative, feeding your readers a dish they’ve never tasted or a drink they’ve never sipped, often from a place they’ll never visit.”

So the next time you are biting into a juicy burger, crunching on a kale salad, or digging into Edible Delmarva, be sure to enjoy the universal experiences of eating, sharing, and describing tasty treats.

Bon appétit.

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