r u t h r e i c h l

When the New York Times restaurant critic dared to challenge the tyranny
of French snoots, she sparked a messy food fight at the newspaper of record.

Illustration by Elizabeth Kairys

"War of the Times' dining divas." That's the screaming headline the New York Post recently placed atop a "Page Six" item about Ruth Reichl, the current New York Times restaurant critic, and her predecessor Bryan Miller. The Post had obtained a bootleg copy of a letter that Miller — a culinarily conservative Francophile — had written to Reichl's boss at the Times, complaining about her reviews. "How do you think she comes off giving SoHo noodle shops 2 and 3 stars?" Miller wrote. "SHE HAS DESTROYED THE SYSTEM that Craig [Claiborne], Mimi [Sheraton] and I upheld."

Miller's kvetching is fascinating not only because it's great gossip, but because it indicates how wonderfully subversive Reichl's three-year tenure at the Times has been. Gone are the days when only old-school French restaurants such as Lutece, La Grenouille and Aureole ranked highly in the Times' zero-to-four star rating system. Merely by eating the way most food-happy people in New York do — Chinatown one night, a French restaurant the next, a tiny-but-miraculous Greek place in Queens the next — Reichl has been a real democratizing force. "I think everybody knows what a four-star experience is supposed to be," Reichl told Salon in an interview last week. "But the two and three stars are different ... It's very hard to compare a great chef in a Chinese restaurant with a great chef in a French restaurant where they're spending $100,000 a year on flowers."

Reichl has quickly won a passionate readership, too, by paying attention to issues that Times' critics have traditionally overlooked. She has written from an outsider's perspective about the snobbery and pretension of some well-known New York restaurants, and she has delved into the sexism that often confronts women while eating out.

Reichl (pronounced Rye-shul) came to the Times in 1993 after a nine-year stint as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. Previously she had been a co-founder of a cooperative restaurant in Berkeley in the early 1970s, before becoming food critic for New West (later California) magazine. Short, slender, and with unruly brown hair, she looks younger than her 48 years. She talked with Salon in the spacious and artfully funky apartment on New York's Upper West Side that she shares with her husband, a producer at CBS News, and their son.

One of the most remarkable reviews you've written, I think, was of Le Cirque, the well-known French restaurant. It was a kind of dual review, about how you were treated once they recognized you versus how you were treated when they didn't.

Since I wrote that review, I've gotten letters from people saying, "Couldn't you do this for every restaurant in New York?" The reason I did it for Le Cirque is that I'd been coming to New York for years and been treated like dirt there. In the food community, people would say, "Do you want to go to Le Cirque?" And then they would add, "I'm not known there." This happens in a lot of restaurants, but this one was almost proud about it. "We treat the rich better." It was so ridiculous. They just opened themselves up to it.

On one of my visits there, I had dinner with [longtime Times editor and current London Bureau Chief] Warren Hoge, who had hired me, and he said, "I'll make the reservation. They don't know me." So he made the reservation in his own name, and they seated us at this apparently not-good table. Halfway through the meal, Sirio [Maccioni, Le Cirque's owner] came rushing over. He didn't recognize Warren, but somebody had said to him, "That's Warren Hoge." And he wanted to move us. He said, "So-and-so just said, 'How could you seat Warren Hoge behind the glass?'" It was shameless. It was like, "We've given you a bad seat; we've made a terrible mistake; please let us move you."

Did you move?

We said, "Don't be ridiculous. We're not giving up the table during our dinner." And I thought, well, this is great. Clearly, I'm going to do this. I'm going to go a few times, where he doesn't know me, and I'm going to write about this.

That must happen often, where you are recognized mid-meal and the owner's eyes pop open.

Yeah, it happens. But people are usually too smart to come rushing over and say, "Oh my God, we've given you the wrong table!"

Do you always know when you've been found out? How subtle are people?

Unless I go heavily bewigged, and I do have all these disguises, I don't fool myself that they don't know me. The New York Times restaurant critic is so powerful, and has such an economic impact on these restaurants, that it behooves them to know who you are. And I've had restaurateurs clearly recognize me halfway through the meal even when I was made up.

What do they do? Start bringing on the wine?

The smart ones just proceed with the meal. To me, one of the amazing differences between New York and Los Angeles is that, when I became the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, I felt like I had to train restaurateurs not to give me free stuff. I had to have these arguments. I had to send checks afterwards. I felt like I spent a year making the rules very clear: "I will not accept anything, you can't send me free wine, you have to charge me." They wouldn't charge me the right price for a meal. So I'd leave these outrageous tips, $300 tips, and that annoys restaurateurs so much — that the waiter was getting all the money (laughs) — that they stopped doing it. Here no one has ever offered me a glass of wine for free. The rules were so clear here from the get-go. It's a pleasure.

When you wear disguises, do you really do it up?

I do! Do you want to see my wigs? I've got five wigs in different colors, I've got glasses with clear lenses, I've got wardrobes, I change my credit cards every six weeks or so. But, you know, they fax the names of the credit cards around to each other.

I loved the memo that a restaurant once circulated about you. Harper's magazine reprinted it. It said something like, "Watch out for this woman. She has unruly hair and smiles a lot."

My gosh! She smiles!

I once heard you interviewed by Susan Stamberg on NPR, and she asked you how the Times can justify having 10 or so reporters on the food beat and only a few on, say, Bosnia.

Well, ultimately we are here to serve the readers. And the truth is that most people who read the New York Times really do care more about where they're going to go eat than they care about what's going on in Bosnia. But actually, I don't think that was her question. Her question was, for what I spend each year, they could hire two people on the foreign beat. But food is one of the major industries in America. The hospitality industry supports a large part of this country. Just in terms of sheer economics, we would be very remiss not to cover it. I think we don't cover it as well as we ought to, in terms of business and so forth. I think very few people are aware of everything — from restaurants being the entry point for so many immigrants, to the millions of people employed in what's known as the hospitality industry. I used to know the statistics, but it's huge.

Maybe my question is more related to a sense that there's something morally suspect about paying so much attention to food. I'm reminded of that controversial Times piece back in the '70s where Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey wrote about this epic meal they had eaten — it must have cost thousands of dollars, and they had dozens of wines — after bidding $300 for it at a charity auction.

Well, interestingly, one of my editors asked me if I would find the most expensive restaurant in the world and redo that story. I've been shying away from it. But there is something ... I found myself last week in the office, looking at the Williams-Sonoma food catalog. You can buy lamb — it's fabulous lamb, organic, summer field lamb — but it's three pounds of a rack of lamb for $85. Then they had this pasta, eight ounces of dried spaghetti you could order for $8, I think. And I said, you know, this has really gotten out of hand. It could be that I just read this book about the French Revolution — the excesses of this, you know, the idea that we're going to pay for this. Somebody just called me, a reporter from another paper, who wants to do a thing about "Bad is back." About restaurants that are serving lots of food, cigars, and so forth. There is something worrisome to me about it. You start thinking about Rome.

Do you ever walk out of a restaurant just feeling sort of ... I don't know, debauched?

I'll tell you, last night I was at a meal where we had a porterhouse for two for $75 and it came with nothing else. So you're talking about a lot of money. You come outside and you see some homeless person standing on the street, and it doesn't feel great. And I can tell myself, well, I'm just doing my job. Interestingly, people don't say this about fashion. There's some way in which, because it's food, it's very close to the bone. Why aren't people asking that about movies, when each costs $100 million, and an actor is making $20 million in salary? It's precisely because food is so important to us that people are asking these kind of questions, and I think they're legitimate questions. I wouldn't want to be a person who didn't pay attention to it.

Next: How to stay trim while eating out 12 times a week.