This morning The New York Times published a relatively negative takedown of Midtown Manhattan relic 21 Club. In the review, critic Pete Wells takes issue with a game platter that was “as cold as if it had been carried all the way from the hunting lodge” and a Caesar salad that arrived with boxed croutons. It was overall a pretty gentle critique, with the writer drawing comparisons between 21 and Galatoire’s in New Orleans. Places where the food is a third and fourth thought, behind history, legacy and very well-stirred cocktails.
But what was most interesting in the review was Wells’ opening line:
“Readers who look forward to the dark thrill of a public execution on days when there are no stars attached to this column should turn elsewhere to satisfy their blood lust.”
It’s a point that rings so true in this modern age of restaurant evaluating — be it from professionals (the fulltime critics), semi-professionals (passionate, knowledgeable and self-funded, bloggers) and amateurs (your friend writing you over Google Chat). Everybody loves to read a nasty little scribble about the steaming pile of turd French bistro or po’boy slinger that just opened. Everybody takes pleasure in hearing about a bad uni dish. As then-Times critic Sam Sifton wrote in 2011: “Lobes of dismal-flavored sea urchin served over thick lardo and heavy toast were just dreadful: the eighth band after Nirvana to write loud-soft-loud music and call it new.”
Bad reviews get the hearts racing. Fists shaking. When executed with sharp wit and brutal honestly — with a good cheap shot thrown in like accenting flakes of Maldon salt — they’re like motorcycle accidents on the 405. You simply cannot look away. But in the end, you want to avoid the subjects of these bad reviews. And this is not to say I won’t be turning up to 21 Club for an icy Manhattan later this winter. As for that terrible sea urchin?
Well, that place closed.