New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells is not a fan of Peter Luger Steak House. Ears perked up as his review published Tuesday, titled “Peter Luger used to sizzle. Now it sputters,” started making the rounds: After all, it was Wells who wrote the review of Guy Fieri’s now-shuttered Times Square spot that some consider the Times’ harshest. Could Wells’ disdain spell trouble for Luger?
The review is an ugly homage to what Wells considers Luger’s heyday, a time long before now. The South Williamsburg institution opened in 1887 and has been considered the destination for steak in New York City since then. Wells complains about each dish in turn from lunch to dinner, steaks to sides. He ties the price to most complaints, including that he felt scammed. Wells ends by questioning whether anybody needs to go to Luger for a meal.
But does Wells’ opinion really hold much weight?
According to Facebook, the steakhouse is still knocking it out of the park: It has a rating of 4.7 out of 5 based on the opinion of about 4,200 of the site’s members. Scroll past the last few days of reactionary reviews and it’s clear that people love Luger, which makes one question whether professional critic reviews speak to the average diner. Luger’s reputation on Yelp is great, with over 5,000 reviewers giving it an overall 4-star rating. Several 5-star reviews have come rolling in this week.
Perhaps a negative review from Wells is good for business?
Wells’ 5 Most Recent Zero-Star Reviews
The last five zero-star reviews from Wells span upscale cafeteria food to sushi to pizza. Interestingly, only one of the five most recent, Bruno Pizza, is out of business and that is due to crippling water damage as the result of a fire in an upstairs apartment.
Beijing-based DaDong was another to experience Wells’ poison pen. Its zero-star review came in early March of 2018, but it’s still doing well. Steven Hall, its PR rep, gave a telling answer when HuffPost asked whether the review affected the staff.
“It’s upsetting. You have to work harder to keep up the morale,” Hall said. Based on Wells’ take on the servers as being warm and attentive, it’s not surprising that a scathing review would deal a blow to morale. One of the few things Wells enjoyed about dining at DaDong was the staff.
“Servers sometimes seemed to be reading dish descriptions from a teleprompter, but they made up for that with a care and attentiveness that felt unforced. The sommeliers were particularly good at interpreting the wine list, which is well-rounded and can be quite reasonable,” Wells said.
Hall also pointed out that a Times review is unlikely to make or break a restaurant.
“Peter Luger is an institution. I’m sure there’s a group of New Yorkers that go all the time. It’s [also] a place where visitors go because they want to go someplace iconic. It impacts the business when you get a negative review but I don’t think it’s the one thing that drives people to a restaurant,” Hall said.
Despite Wells’ roasting, DaDong continues to thrive and is a favorite of trendy food bloggers on Instagram, where it is regularly tagged by popular food accounts. Like Peter Luger, it also fares considerably better on Yelp than it did in the Times. Some 565 diners give it a combined 3 out of 5 stars, with many recent reviews being 4- and 5-star.
Upscale cafeteria-esque Made Nice received its bad review from Wells in August of 2017. Wells took exception with the quality of the food, considering that it is made by one of the city’s best chefs. Of the chicken and rice, Wells said, “Another dish is called chicken rice. The rice tastes like tomatoes and needs salt. The chicken seems exhausted. Imagine a chain of Cuban restaurants started by retired employees of the Olive Garden. This could be their arroz con pollo.”
He also wasn’t a fan of the pork confit. Wells said, “It’s a dark brick of shredded pork, a heavy-tasting and oddly inert centerpiece for a summer salad of shaved corn, watercress and wheat berries.”
While Wells was not a fan, the people eating there on the regular, and especially the lunch crowd, love Made Nice. It gets a 4.5 out of 5 rating on Facebook with 41 people reviewing and 4 stars on Yelp with 265 diners chiming in, very few coming even close to Wells’ criticisms. On Instagram, it is regularly tagged in high-engagement posts.
In November of 2015, Wells went after Jams. A popular spot in the ’80s, it didn’t survive the late-decade economic turmoil but was brought back to life in August of 2015. Wells doled out seriously snarky insults including describing the burger as “a juiceless, saltless, flavorless flap of overcooked meat” and said, “A restaurant that trips over its signature dishes is as hard to trust as a person who misspells his own name. (Good thing there are only four letters in Jams.)” Four years later, over 100 people have weighed in on Facebook, giving Jams a rating of 4.7 out of 5 and its 300 reviewers on Yelp give it a decent 3.5 stars. Only one person complained about the soggy fries Wells is bitter about.
Finally, the fifth restaurant recently given a scathing review, Kappo Masa, is still open.
Wells said, “The cost of eating at Kappo Masa is so brutally, illogically, relentlessly high, and so out of proportion to any pleasure you may get, that large numbers start to seem like uninvited and poorly behaved guests at the table.”
He goes on like one of those old Mastercard commercials sarcastically breaking down the price of various menu items. “Price of yellowtail collar left on the grill until it lost the silky, puddinglike richness that is the whole point of this cut: $28,” Wells wrote.
Kappo Masa has only a smattering of reviews on Facebook and Yelp but gets a 4.9 and 3.5 stars, respectively. Its price tag likely makes it not the type to be reviewed on social media but customers who have done so are clearly more fan than not.
Are Critics Out Of Touch?
So, how is it that a restaurant critic with a wealth of experience and knowledge can dole out five zero-star reviews to restaurants that, based on popular opinion, are worth much more?
The answer isn’t simple. Wells’ bad reviews do provide entertainment: Who doesn’t love to read a line like, “Every once in a while, something genuinely remarkable would arrive, as if from another kitchen.” And those who have read his and other critic reviews for decades lean on the expertise and context they loan.
That said, it’s an aging population that relies on Wells and other critics. The social media savvy crowd isn’t as likely to even read a Times review (except when it goes viral) but instead look to Yelp and other online platforms. After all, the former has 4.7 million subscribers whereas the latter boasts 178 million unique visitors each month. Of course, when its reviews go viral, the Times likely gets traffic that makes most publishers envious.
What does that say about today’s diners and how media influences their choices? In his review of Bruno ― the only of Wells’ five most recent zero-star reviewed restaurants to close ― Wells said, “Bruno is one of many new places where building flavor seems less important than composing an image. … It’s hard to explain how great something tastes, but easy to show how great it looks … contemporary food media rewards the latter.” And it’s true. If we consider contemporary media to be social media, it’s the pictures that matter: They get diners in the doors to recreate drool-worthy images.
Fairness is fashionable these days, another reason Wells’ rebuke of Luger may not matter much: Bruno was just seven weeks old when Wells gave it zero stars, which were given back to the Times by the restaurant in a letter penned by owner Demian Repucci. Seven weeks is infancy, when restaurants are still finding their footing. Repucci admits there were kinks that needed to be ironed out. But Wells didn’t consider this. Or, if he did, he placed more value on zingers than balance. Repucci told HuffPost, “A super-popular restaurant that’s over 100 years old can probably handle it better than a seven-week-old restaurant.”
As with most media, there is a place for traditional critic-written reviews while more space is being made for diners to provide input. As Hall said, “If 10 out of 10 people hate the banana-cream pie, there’s something wrong with it.”
Agreed. Sounds like Wells might want to try a new recipe.