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A Restaurant Review Worthy of Ebert and Siskel (z"l)

A bunch of years ago, Gene Siskel (z"l) and Roger Ebert were reviewing a movie on their public TV show, "At the Movies." I can't tell you the name of the movie, but I can recall the palpable outrage of these two film critics - men who loved everything about film, who lived for the cinematic experience, who took and studied the art form very seriously - at a piece of mediocre movie making that was being passed off as fine art. They were livid, and they made no bones about it. It wasn't that the movie was bad; bad movies are 99% of what gets produced. What made them furious was what (if I recall) appeared to them to be an obscene waste of time, money, precious and rare creativity and resources on a half-baked, mediocre effort. The movie was bad? Fine. The intent was mediocrity? THAT was unforgivable. I came away from that episode shaken by their intensity.

And yesterday, Pete Wells, a restaurant critic for the New York Times, offered a scathing review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square. At first glance, it's wickedly funny; the entire review consists of sarcastic questions, such as the opening lines:
GUY FIERI, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations?
Drinks that taste like "formaldehyde" and "radiator fluid." Service that would be unacceptable at a fast-food chain drive through. Food that is either unrecognizable from the menu description or cold or never served or inedible. The sarcasm drips and drips and I was left breathless with laughter and then stone-cold silent with an uncomfortable pit in my stomach.

I was immediately brought back to that "At the Movies" episode. And I immediately understood what was happening here.

Wells didn't go (or was sent) to this high-priced tourist trap so that he could enjoy the atmosphere, dine on an epicurean masterpiece, and write a Zagat-quality review. Wells went, I believe, to expose anger at what's being foisted on diners and "foodie" television viewers: mediocre food and mediocre television values by a network that has reduced itself to porn-style food competitions (think I'm kidding? watch Giada De Laurentiis in her low-cut, form very fitting top ingest one of her succulent ... you get the point). Guy Fieri went from being "The Next Food Network Star" to the FN equivalent of Curtis Sliwa few years ago on WFAN radio (WFAN listeners will remember when WFAN was going through transitions in its morning line up and had become "all Curtis all the time").

Here's the thing: most New Yorkers - and frequent visitors - know enough to steer clear of Times Square dining. We know that, armed with our Yelp and Trip Advisor apps or a reasonable guide book or some back issues of New York Magazine or the Times, we can walk a few blocks in either direction and find ourselves in really good, moderately priced restaurants with wait staff that want to serve and chefs and cooks and bartenders that take pride in their offerings. But tourists either don't know that or they think that Times Square is what its PR says it is, the center of the universe. They see "Guy Fieri" or Hard Rock or some other brand-y, chain-y, familiar name, and they think, "ah - I recognize this." They think that eating at Hard Rock or Cheesecake Factory or, now, Guy's gives them the "New York Experience." It's the rare tourist who's willing to fork over funds to an unknown entity. 
"Hey - how was New York City? Where'd you eat?"
"Some really great out-of-the-way places with delicious ethnic foods and great New York atmosphere!"
"Wait - you didn't eat at [insert famous place/name here]"?
"No; we heard it wasn't very good."
"Oh. Well, that's nice."  
It's not a blame thing here - it's just the way tourism works. When my husband and I visited South Korea in 2011, we were tempted to do the same thing: if it looked familiar, we went there. It was only when our son and great tour guides helped us get beyond the few blocks surrounding our hotel in Seoul that we found really good and honest experiences.

Bottom line: I believe Wells went to this restaurant knowing exactly what he was going to get and determined to perform a Siskel-and-Ebert rage-infused public service aimed at letting New Yorkers and tourists know that should they decide to eat at this celebrity joint, at least they should know for sure what they are getting into. Enough with the celebu-chef nonsense that drains wallets and diminishes what for him should be, if not fine dining, then at least an honest menu/meal. Do I think that Guy Fieri intended mediocrity? I hope not. But it wouldn't surprise me if he really doesn't care. And that, my friends, is what I think made Pete Wells go through the roof.


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