Guy Fieri may not realize it, but being ravaged by a New York Times restaurant reviewer might have been the best thing that could have happened to him.
Sure, the Food Network celebrity probably laments the lashings Pete Wells doled out this week to his 500-seat Times Square ode to down home grub, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. And he might have taken it personally when Wells said the restaurant’s roasted pork bahn mi resembles the authentic Vietnamese sandwich "about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson.”
Even the upshots of Wells’ review probably were tough to take. Such as, "The well-meaning staff seems to realize that this is not a real restaurant.” Or this gem, in which Wells references what he says were the best cocktails on the menu: "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?”
Well, perhaps "best thing” that could have happened is too generous. But it may well turn into a good thing. And it certainly is a survivable thing. Here’s why.
I’ll be the one to say it — people who care about food, and people who heed the Times’ reviews, were never going to eat there. Never. And Fieri knew this, or at least he should have.
You don’t build a three-story monstrosity of a restaurant smack in the tourism heart of New York with the goal of attracting people looking for great dining. And you certainly don’t fill your menu with things called Chinatown chicken crunch, unyawns Cajun chicken ciabatta and Vegas fries if your goal is to impress with your culinary chops.
People go to the restaurant, which opened earlier this fall, for an experience. Somewhat comically, that experience has morphed into a game of, "Is it really that bad?”
It’s a question that burned on the web within minutes of Wells’ review going viral Tuesday night, and undoubtedly will drive traffic to his tables. Even Fieri’s fellow Food Network stars were jumping on that train. "I am planning on visiting Guy Fieri’s NYC eatery this weekend because it can’t be as bad as all those snooty New Yorkers say,” tweeted Alton Brown, adding the hashtag "wishmeluck.”
And maybe it doesn’t matter if it is that bad. When your business model is based on tourists, you’re not talking a lot of frequent-flyer customers anyway.
Of course, Fieri does indeed take issue with Wells’ thrashing. Though he has acknowledged that the review gave him some things to think about, he stands by his restaurant’s food and service.
"At my restaurants, we always try to live by a very simple notion: that food brings people together,” Fieri said in an emailed statement. "I’ve learned that not everyone agrees with my style. The Times’ critic, Pete Wells, clearly did not enjoy his experience. I normally do not respond to reviews or critics, however, given the tone of Pete’s piece, it’s clear to me that he went into my restaurant with his mind already made up.
"That’s unfortunate. I take comments from patrons, fans and visitors very seriously, and if there is ever a problem with our service, I’ll fix it,” he said.
Wells, who visited Fieri’s restaurant four times before honoring it with his first ever no-star (and "poor”) rating since taking over as the Times’ restaurant critic a year ago, denies any agenda.
"I did go in hoping there would be good things on the menu. I would have liked to write the ‘man-bites-dog’ review,” he told Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor.
The reality is, that doesn’t much matter, either. There is a serious element of everyman sympathy at play in this one, no matter how un-everyman Fieri has become. In plenty of food world circles, the Wells-Fieri slapfest is being billed as the hoity toity Times beating up on the blue-collar guy who just loves him a good feed of beer and wings.
Fieri stands to benefit — certainly among the legions of fans who have propelled him to rock star status in and out of the food world — from this bad review in the same way Marilyn Hagerty benefited from the equally viral good review she gave to an Olive Garden restaurant in North Dakota earlier this year.
When Hagerty heaped glowing praise on the at best mediocre offerings of the chain restaurant, instead of drawing sniggers, she got equally glowing praise heaped right back at her. Not because she was right about the food at Olive Garden — she wasn’t — but because she was an 85-year-old lady and it was kind of quaint in an innocent, all-American sort of way. Telling her she’s wrong about that awful food would be practically un-American.
And she’s done pretty well for herself, locking down a book deal with Anthony Bourdain’s imprint over at HarperCollins.
Fieri will come out of this much the same. OK, probably not with a Bourdain book deal (they aren’t exactly best buds). But plenty of people will give him a sympathetic nod, buying the idea that he was treated unfairly.
Was he? Not really. It certainly was a scathing review delivered in a sucker punch fashion. But I don’t buy the argument that Wells shouldn’t have reviewed it, either because the restaurant was so bad it didn’t warrant a review, or because the very nature of the place (and the man behind it) places it outside the league of "real” restaurants that merit reviews.
To accept those arguments is to accept that the food served to Average Joes and Janes isn’t worthy of criticism, and that it shouldn’t be held to higher standards. Fieri has built his career touting the foods of everyday America. If that’s what he’s going to serve in his restaurant, it seems only fair that he be held to answer for the quality of that food.
J.M. Hirsch is the AP’s Food Editor. Follow him to great eats on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JM—Hirsch or email him at jhirsch(at)ap.org.