I certainly felt that way about the anti-Fieri sentiment when I read Steve Cuozzo’s crabby zero-star for the Post, or Josh Stein’s weirdly self-conscious slam for the Observer (he actually liked the food, but wrapped his praise in paragraphs upon paragraphs of plebe-bashing in order to justify what appeared to be a pre-decided zero-star). And I kind of felt it for the first few paragraphs of Wells’s review, maybe the first quarter—but then Pete calls Guy “television’s answer to Calvin Trillin,” and it all fell into place.
Because the thing is, Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives is actually a great show. On it, Guy does this really wonderful, tremendously generous thing where he takes restaurants that are inexpensive and unpretentious (and largely without the unsettling veneer of sanitized cultural appropriation that comes standard with most New York journalist-approved dives), and praises them without concern for anything but the sheer deliciousness of their food. Guy’s unironic, never-say-”guilty-pleasure” embrace of good food regardless of provenance was almost entirely unique on television, or in almost any media, when the show launched in 2006. (For context: 2006 is the year Serious Eats and Grub Street launched. Eater came into existence in 2005.)
So what Pete isn’t saying in his review is what you might get on a surface read: “Ha ha, Obviously Shitty Restaurant is obviously shitty.” What he’s saying to Guy (and can we pause for a moment to acknowledge the rare successful deployment of the open-letter format in this review? If nothing else, Pete Wells, you are a champion for that) is hey, dude, no one is expecting Le Bernardin here. No one is even expecting Shake Shack. But Guy Fieri is the champion of the terrible-wonderful, he is the guy who lifted the veneer of shame from the chili-cheese-bacon-slaw-dog and taught us—not the “us” that is the five thousand of us who read food blogs and debate the relative merits of different types of hipster vermouth, but the “us” that is, like, actually everyone in America—that you can get your fix of soul-satisfying, sort of intimidating, deeply wonderful, calorically-dense, artery-freezing food without having to go to a soul-sucking chain restaurant.
He taught us that instead we could go to a restaurant that tells a story about its city or region, or at least about its ex-biker proprietor, and that in fact going to that restaurant and supporting that act of culinary storytelling was a really, really, really good thing. In a not-so-small way, Guy Fieri changed the way literally millions of people thought about dining. He taught people to readjust their judgment of “quality” from an axis of cheap-to-expensive to an axis of undelicious-to-delicious, which is—get real now—precisely how the world should be.
And then here is Fieri’s actual restaurant, the first of his many ventures that actually bears his name over the door, and in its extraordinary culinary ineptitude—its disrespect for both its product and its patrons—undoes every bit of that incredibly powerful, very pro-food, very pro-human-scale action that Guy has engendered with his television show and his public presence.
Guy Fieri may represent something culinarily unsophisticated and lowbrow (and even that’s in question, really), but nevertheless his beat has always been the authentic, the human, the real. And what Wells does is locate Fieri’s restaurant (which, let’s be honest, nobody ever actually expected to be any good) within the larger sphere of Fieri’s universe. This isn’t a restaurant review, it’s a referendum on Fieri himself, a man whose brand was built on his unreserved praise for food and people deserving of that praise, and who in entering the arena himself revealed a hollowness that threatens to undermine everything he’s done.
A restaurant review is a curious part of the critical landscape. A plate of food is never the same thing twice, so a good critic—one who understands what his role is in the great seething ourobouros of media and restaurants—writes with the broader picture in mind. A review isn’t about the burger that you ate on that one day in that one seat with that one beer. It’s about the entirety of that restaurant’s burger—where the burger fits in on the menu as a whole, where that menu fits in in the pantheon of the entire city’s menus, what that burger says about who we are as people and where we are in both geography and time.
But more than that, a restaurant review should have a life beyond the moment in which it’s written—a comment made in a publication like the Times is the reference point against which that restaurant will play out its whole existence. (Sam Sifton bookended his review of Vandaag with stuff about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, thus dooming his opinions on the (perhaps luckily now-closed) restaurant to never, ever be relevant outside of 2010.) Wells has understood that through his short tenure as the Times’s critic. His reviews have been thoughtful, deliberately given context both immediate and broad.
So what happens, as with Guy’s American Kitchen, when the restaurant is zeitgeist? When the man whose name is above the door itself is both a part of and a shaper of popular culture? This is the golden, shining moment any critic lives for: This isn’t the restaurant as a place to get dinner, this is the restaurant as culture, as a microcosm of the decisions that we make as a population about our priorities and our desires. Wells rose to the occasion, blazing righteous fire and never once throwing a punch that wasn’t deserved. That’s exactly what we want—and need—our critics to do.