When you write about food, you write about people. You write about people’s insecurities, their hopes, their desires. And you write about money.
That’s how Pete Wells (C ’86), the restaurant critic for The New York Times, writes about food. The restaurant critic as a character has a certain allure. He either arrives in a disguise or makes a reservation under a false name. Perhaps both. He never smiles. And he is always, it seems, out for blood. Holding what’s perceived as the most powerful position in food criticism, Wells is feared by restaurant managers and chefs in New York and beyond.
But Wells doesn’t see it like that. “A lot of power is psychological anyway,” he says. He doesn’t wear a disguise when he’s out to eat.
Psychology has always been a topic of interest for Wells; he’s interested in analyzing the way people think and observing how they behave. He came to Penn expecting to major in it, but then realized the field of psychology is not necessarily the place to study character and “why we are the way we are.” He moved on to study intellectual history, developing an interest in “the role of the writer” and how “the role of the intellectual changes in different societies.” Then, post–grad, he started freelancing in New York.
“At that point in my life, in my career, I could have gone anywhere,” he says. His career was beginning just as restaurants started to function more as spaces where people could meet casually, when food TV was starting and Time Out New York began featuring short write–ups on places to eat in the city. “The subject that editors kept asking me to write about was food.”
After years in the field, what’s the writing process like for Wells? “Oh it’s terrible,” he says.
Food resists the act of writing for the fact of its ephemerality as an experience. Eating as an act can waver between the realms of the religious and the banal with rapidity. It’s a slippery subject, and operating within the form of the review time and time again creates the danger of falling into a worn structure. Start with appetizers, then describe the entrees, then end with dessert. “Sometimes I will just pick a point at random and say: start here. Let’s start with dessert, and then work backward from dessert,” says Wells.
At the bare level of language, Wells tries to stay away from taste, focusing on the visual details instead. “The more concrete you can make the food, the shorter [the] leap in the reader’s imagination to actually eating it.” He’s learned to trust his readers. “If I say ‘peach,’ I have to believe that people will remember the last peach they ate and I won’t have to describe the peachiness,” he says.
He concedes, though, that he falls into the same traps and cliches over and over again. “Saying the steak was really beefy. I’ve done that.” He groans. “The thing that separates good from great is just the intensity of the flavor. But that’s a hard thing to write about without saying ‘this tasted like steak on steroids.’ No one wants to eat steak on steroids. We’re actually trying to find steak not on steroids.”
Wells eats out five times a week, sometimes more if he can fit in two dinners. Every starred review he writes reflects three visits, and his other meals he uses "for sniffing things out.” He spells out his criteria for why a restaurant might not work for a review: the chef is new but not different enough from the old chef, the restaurant is good but it’s not good enough, it’s bad but it’s not bad enough. The existing public interest in a place matters as well. “If you have to tell people what the place is,” he explains, “then you can’t really slam it.” The bad reviews are infrequent, but when he writes them, he doesn’t hold back.
In late 2012, the New York Times released a review Wells wrote titled “As Not Seen On TV,” a review of Guy Fieri’s now–closed Times Square restaurant. It’s an unconventional review, written in the form of 49 questions directed at Fieri himself. The second paragraph begins: “Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex?” The review has 1,024 comments on the New York Times site, many of which defend Guy Fieri or question why Wells would cover the restaurant in the first place. For many readers, the review made no sense, and was an example of Wells’ elitism and “disdain for real America,” as he puts it. Rather than an elitist diatribe, Wells sees his Fieri review as the logical response to a TV personality who claimed to be representing the wide genre of American regional cuisine.
What casual readers didn’t realize, though, is that Wells has consistently reviewed restaurants at a variety of price points throughout his tenure as critic. His first review outside of New York was of Federal Donuts in Philadelphia. “Unlike some other forms of criticism, price is really central to restaurant reviewing, always, it’s inescapable,” he says. Before going out, he notes that you ask yourself: “can I afford this place? Do I want to afford this place?”
Another review that gained notoriety, though for a different reason, came in 2016 when Wells knocked the restaurant Per Se down from four stars to two. His predecessor, Sam Sifton, had called Per Se the greatest restaurant in New York. “Those two reviews are really similar,” he says, comparing what he wrote of Per Se to what he wrote of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar. “They’re both about a promise being made by the image the famous chef has built up that’s not being delivered.”
The public believes that all restaurant critics “have the potential to give somebody their comeuppance,” says Wells. If a place has gotten too full of itself, or is perhaps riding the wave of its reputation, it’s the restaurant critic who can take it down. “People love that,” he says. “They love talking about wigs and disguises, although that’s not part of what I do. To me it’s a minor part of the job that’s been blown all out of proportion. Because it’s fun.”
“I can’t name a single place that I think I closed,” he says, acknowledging that his reviews more often draw positive attention to places that were previously overlooked. “Of course,” he continues, “I would always say that the bad review would’ve been a diagnosis of a disease that was going to kill the restaurant anyway.” He cites Romera, a restaurant that closed in 2012, as the only place he believes he had a definite hand in killing. “The restaurant didn’t die because I slammed it, it died because I didn’t rave about it. That place needed a New York Times rave to stay in business. It needed probably three stars and a lot of flag waving to get people in there.”
Wells describes the psychological concept of projection to explain the public reaction to his first viral review. “You project onto the person you’re romantically involved with qualities of your dad or your mom,” he says. “And people do that with The Times because it’s such a big authority figure.
“I think people have such complex reactions to authority without even thinking about it sometimes. The Times can represent all sorts of things to people. The things that intimidate you, or the things that you regard as keeping you down or making you feel inferior. Or it can represent the forces of the establishment that prevent change that you’d like to see in society. It can represent all kinds of things to people. So when you write you collide with that stuff sometimes.”
“I’m trying to drop into more places like this.” He points to Wu’s Wonton King, a restaurant on East Broadway that serves inexpensive food in a casual setting. “I’d like to expand my frame of reference a little bit.”
All restaurants, highbrow and lowbrow, are spaces of calculation. They are “super complex organisms,” says Wells, with different characters interacting on dining floors designed with the precision of stages. These character are always present in the reviews he writes. He pays attention to the mood of the guests at the table: “noticing that they are comfortable, or on edge, or quietly happy or boisterously happy.” Mood, set off by features such as noise level and light, affects how one experiences food. “There’s a level of noise that makes people feel good and there’s a level of noise that makes people feel bad,” he says. There are certain types of light that allow a space to vibrate with sexiness “because everybody feels like they’re more attractive than they really are.” Designed right, a restaurant can create a permeating feeling of wellbeing where it didn’t exist before.
Food has “so many powers, culturally, psychologically,” says Wells. “And they’re all zinging around the walls of the restaurant.” They intersect at the question of comfort. “People like to go where they belong,” he says. “Which is why people get mad at the exaltation of restaurants they can never afford, which is why they get mad at criticism of a place they love or a kind of place they love.” He pauses. “I don’t think it’s with all restaurants, but an awful number of restaurants work because they reaffirm your sense of your identity.”
Wells grew up around Providence, Rhode Island before restaurants were a locus of entertainment or food was a subject of serious writing. “I am totally from Rhode Island,” he says. He describes the act of swirling a steamer clam around in the broth that pools at the bottom of a cup—a ritual he remembers from his New England childhood. It’s a delicious food that people outside of Rhode Island just don’t seem to get.
When you leave your home, he notes, whatever home means to you, you leave various aspects of your background behind. Things that once seemed unmemorable or invisible gain significance, like the way your mother spiced a soup or the complexities of a dish you’ve had countless times. When you enjoy a food from home when you’re away “it means even more to you than it used to,” says Wells. “There’s just something about the pleasure of eating something that you know is delicious and other people don’t know is delicious. Usually you want to share those things, but when they’re part of your culture and your background they’re not as shareable.”
Food for Wells hasn’t always been central, but it’s always been present. Steamer clams for him are emblematic, representative of a place and time rather than just mollusks in some salty liquid. That’s the power of food—it brings you back, and reminds you of who you are.