subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Reflections on the NY Times’ demolition of Per Se



Pete Wells’ scathing review of Per Se in the New York Times is a schadenfreud-eque joy to read. Twitter lit up with #PerSe hooting and laughing—one tweet calls Wells “my hero,” another accurately notes that “Harsh restaurant reviews are so much more fun to read than glowing ones,” while another comes right out and says what not so long ago was unsayable: Thomas Keller “is no longer the quintessential American chef.” The website amnewyork, in a fabulous gesture of lese majesté, advised Per Se to “emulate Señor Frog’s,” a moderately-placed Times Square Mexican joint Wells recently liked. Our own Inside Scoop at the San Francisco Chronicle trumpeted “Pete Wells’ Takedown” and quoted that old Shirelle’s song: “Mama said there’d be days like this.” Eater—always joyously malicious—ran “The 17 Best Reactions to Per Se’s 2-Star Takedown,” of which my favorite is “$3,000 for 4 persons? And people wonder why Bernie Sanders is surging in the polls,” although this tweet is a close second: “An hour in [to the State of the Union address] and @POTUS hasn’t mentioned that Per Se review.”

What rankled Wells, unlike his predecessor at the Times, Sam Sifton, who gave Per Se 4 stars in 2011 when he selected it for his last Times review ever and called it “the best restaurant in New York City,” was—well, pretty much everything: servors engaged in “oblivious sleepwalking” and cuisine that was “disappointingly flat-footed”: “gluey, oily” bacon-wrapped quail; mushroom pot pie that was “a swampy mess,” “limp, dispiriting yam dumplings,” a bouillon “as murky and appealing as bong water,” cheese that was “rubbery and flavorless.” (Wells’ review was so horrible that some people wondered how he could even give Per Se two stars. Mimi Sheraton, the famous food critic, tweeted, “Pete Wells in NYT review convincingly reports awful food&service&value at Per Se. Why then 2 stars meaning ‘Very good’? Why not none?”

Having myself never eaten at Per Se, I couldn’t possibly weigh in on the food quality/service issue. Maybe Wells was just having a bad hair day, and hankered to write some snark. I have on the other hand eaten at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, on three occasions, and quite honestly my reaction was expressed perfectly by a gentleman who tweeted on the #PerSe string, “I dined at French Laundry between Christmas and New Years, and my partner and I had great expectations but were disappointed. Given the outsized reputation of French Laundry, we thought we were just rubes who didn’t understand and appreciate our experience. Our experience there was a mirror image of Mr. Wells’.”

Following my first experience at French Laundry, around a dozen years ago, I left feeling the same way: disappointed, a little confused, and fearful that I simply lacked the palate to appreciate this hautest of haute cuisine—that I was, well, a rube. It took additional disappointments, not just at French Laundry but at other gastronomic palaces, for me to finally figure out that the problem wasn’t me. Granted, dining at a place like French Laundry raises one’s expectations to levels that are probably unreasonable, and incapable of being satisfied entirely—at least, to someone like me, who has a core of skepticism about most things. I never wanted to be one of those people who eats at a place like French Laundry and finds it “unbelievable,” the “experience of a lifetime,” “breathtaking,” simply because they think they’re supposed to, and so they find what they expect.

This concept—of the skeptic versus the gullible believer—is a profound one, of course; who is better off in the long run, me with my skepticism and disappointment, or the gullible believer with his joy? I cannot answer that, because it’s an existential question that has no answer. And besides, we are who we are.

But I am also the type of person who looks for the moral of the story: and I think that the moral of Pete Wells’ review of Per Se is this: A younger generation simply isn’t as gullible as an older one. They’ve been raised in the midst of the most alarming hype the world has ever known: the media hypes everything, the news hypes everything, advertising hypes everything, your investment advisors hype everything, drug companies hype everything, everything is hustled and on steroids. Young people have reached the point where hype is not the exception but the rule. They expect hype—to be manipulated, controlled, commandeered by people who want their patronage, i.e. their money. So they react just as any psychologically healthy person would: with suspicion. This is why they have a hard time understanding why Petrus costs thousands of dollars when, really, it’s just another bottle of wine. They may realize that it’s a very special wine, that it’s famous and coveted; they may believe that it takes a certain expertise to appreciate it. But they have no problem at all conceding that they don’t have that expertise, don’t wish to have that expertise anyway, and have better things to do with their money. They do not worship expensive things the way their parents and grandparents did.

I remember one time, after eating at French Laundry ($2,400 for four people, before the tip), telling a friend I’d rather eat at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant any day of the week. Less pretension and self-consciousness; no fear of making a mistake (which fork do I use, what do I do with the napkin when I go to the restroom?), and no fear of being disappointed, because I’m never disappointed by imperial rolls, pho, cellophane noodles with shrimp. I could eat that stuff for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a reverse-snob and say that cheap things are better. They’re not, necessarily. But good is good, and very good is very good, and great is great, and one thing I learned from being a wine critic is, You don’t have to pay a lot of money for great wine. So I guess you don’t for great food, either.

Have a lovely weekend!

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    Great post! I skipped over Wells’ review. but now I might have to go back and read it. Back in the 1980’s, I used to travel a lot for work, often to NY. When I went with my boss, he always insisted on going to one or another of the top-rated restaurants in the city. I found some of them good (maybe even very good), and some of them very disappointing. Then on one trip I went with a co-worker rather than my boss. We found a Spanish restaurant near our midtown hotel, which was very reasonably priced and looked nice. So we ate there, and it was absolutely outstanding. So much so that next time I traveled there with my boss I suggested it, and he thought it was outstanding.

  2. If there were a simple Like button on the blog, I’d click it with a smile and move on. You’re giving voice to my thoughts on the matter. It’s a perfect comparison to the wine world.

    “You don’t have to pay a lot of money for great wine.” Exactly. And, while it is rare that I can’t tell the difference between a $25 and $75 price bottle of similar wines, the quality gap between there and $150 starts getting thinner (and I may have to taste them side by side). Maybe that’s just my limitation, but the general market certainly isn’t any more discerning than that. (Besides, there are so many really amazing $25 bottles.)

    Oh, but I do miss Tavern on the Green.

  3. The question: “are you getting your money’s worth” has always been an eye of the beholder thing. It is in all products. Like you, Steve, I do not buy, cannot afford, do not have “stupid money” in my back pocket.

    I have eaten at The French Laundry fifteen years apart. The first time was magical, with the kitchen, Keller on there that time, allowed two of our party to make our own nine-course meal from everything on the menu. The second time we were given no choices, and everyone in the restaurant ate the same thing. On that second occasion, it all tasted a little tired, less than special, “been there/done that”. Maybe Pete Wells had that same experience.

    But I also suspect that we are now in an era of “too much experience” to be over the moon about food. Or about wine. Even great wine is rarely “mind blowing” although there were a couple this year just as a couple of the dishes at The French Laundry were quite special. The rest were just good to very good–and that is not good enough when you are paying $500 or more per person.

    And it is nowhere good enough in wine. Whether one drinks $25 wine as good as $75 wine or $75 wine as good as $250 wine, it is hard to justify young wines at $1000 the throw unless one has too much pocket cash.

    I don’t begrudge those who do. I don’t begrudge them there Petrus and their Bentleys. When I win the lottery, I too will drink Petrus and drive a Bentley. But, if Per Se is really as bad as Pete Wells says it is, I would be surprised. The French Laundry may not have been worth the money or a place that I care to go back to, but it was not bad. Just not as good as expected.

  4. And just think right across the street is Jean-Georges. That is where I would have gone!

  5. Hi Steve:

    Well said and I also shared a lackluster experience dining at the French Laundry many years ago. And we all enjoy a rousing negative review. It’s fun to read and easier than a critically thought out review. Actually lazy journalism.

    However I have one quibble with the your post. Young people – Millenials and beyond or no more or less gullible than older folks. Hey, remember Watergate and its aftermath? That left an entire generation pretty skeptical of the things we were told and supposed to believe. And hordes of young people today DO buy and believe all kinds of hype, i.e. crap such as certain clothing styles, tattoos all over, music, films and more because they’re told to like it by celebrities and see it on their phones…

    But life rolls on. Give TK his due that he has created an empire from virtually scratch. I’m sure the Per Se review won’t hurt him a bit…


  6. Thought One:

    Why 2 stars? Because a horrible meal at a great restaurant is still pretty good.

    Because a bad vintage of Petrus is better than a great vintage of Yellow Tail Merlot.

    Per Se may not be a good value, but it is certainly in the top 5% of restaurants in NYC. When you truly count all restaurants.

  7. Thought Two,

    I’m always hesitant to get on the ‘too expensive’ bandwagon, but the people who gloat when a luxury product falls are often merely looking to feel better about their life circumstances.

    If you can convince yourself that premium products aren’t better, then you start to lose incentive to work harder/smarter and better yourself and the world.

    I’ve just had too many people who try to convince me that no bottle of wine is ever worth $30. And that anyone who says so is just deluding themselves.

  8. Beth Rosenthal says:

    I’m no longer young, having passed 60, but I have had many fabulous meals all around the world, at many price points. About 16 years ago, 8 of us went to the French Laundry. We brought 8 bottles of wine and were informed that we were lucky because the corkage policy was changing the next night and only wines not on their list would be eligible for corkage and that the price for opening bottles was going from $35 to $50 each. What I remember of the meal was that no dish stood out, service was snotty, and we left hungry. Afterwards, we went for pizza, which was much more satifsfying than the five-course meal we had just finished. Guess our experience was more common than we thought.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    I dined once at The French Laundry: New Year’s Eve before they closed for six months to open Per Se.

    I joined wine friends from across the country who flew into the Bay Area to join a local who is a friend of Keller’s. That relationship allowed us to snag the hottest reservation for any restaurant in the country that night.

    (Other diners had to “turn their table” to accommodate two seatings. We had our eight person table all night.)

    The restaurant featured a prix fixe dinner ($500 with gratuity and free corkage) showcasing the ten most popular dishes served during the restaurant’s history.

    Three dishes were sublime. Two were above average. And the remaining five left me indifferent.

    (Two nights later we dined at La Toque. A great meal — with no corkage fee — at one-fourth the price at The French Laundry.)

    I can’t say that Keller and his team served me a “bad” meal.

    Just not a head-turning “transcendent” meal.

    (And to be fair, the wines we brought — well-chosen for the cuisine and revered by collectors/reviewers — didn’t knock my socks off. Likewise nothing “transcendent.”)

    Echoing Charlie’s comment, perhaps we have become a little bit too jaded over fine food and wine due to acclimation (“too much experience”).

    The “highs” just don’t seem that high anymore . . .

  10. Bob–

    It is not that the highs are not that high anymore, at least not for me and Mrs. Olken. It is that we have seen so much, dined in so many fine places, that we are no longer as surprised as we once were.

    But, we can still find those great experiences like Marea in NYC, Neptune in Boston, Piment Rouge in Montreal (a Chinese restaurant whose almost reasonably priced prix fixe meal had several ethereal dishes).

    Wine does the same thing. At times, what were saved as great bottles turn out to be only okay, but there are those wonderful moments that make me glad I have a cellar like a bottle of 2007 Ravenswood Teldeschi I opened recently and everyone knew instantly that we were in the company of greatness. I think it is actually easier with wine because we drink more highly regarded wine than we eat in the French Laundry or its equals. Who has a $1000 to drop on dinner on a regular basis?

  11. Steve, I’m curious as how you came up with the skepticism of youth as the moral of the story. Based on his LinkedIn profile, Pete Wells looks like he’s ~ 53 years old and you, yourself, expressed a great deal of skepticism while at French Laundry.

    If anything, I find the opposite to be true. I tend to find more cynicism and lack of trust in people, say, over 40 than under 40.

  12. Michael Brill, they’re about the same age. I suspected someone would comment on this. I meant that Wells’ attitude is symbolic of an entire generation, not that Wells himself is under 40.

  13. Bob Henry says:


    The high bar of performance in the kitchen keeps ratcheting up over time, as the mastery of technical skills becomes widely dispersed — through cooking schools, hands-on apprenticeships, and easy access to media (“how to” articles, cook books, and video demonstrations).

    We live in the “Golden Age” of food and wine, achieving ever more frequently our aspirational “highs.”

    And that frequency of exposure can make us jaded about the truly high standard of what we are eating and drinking.

    Maybe a better way of stating it is: The “highs” aren’t less high — just less enthralling because they are more easily achieved.

    ~~ Bob

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Charlie wrote:

    “At times, what were saved as great bottles turn out to be only okay, but there are those wonderful moments that make me glad I have a cellar like a bottle of 2007 Ravenswood Teldeschi I opened recently and everyone knew instantly that we were in the company of greatness.”

    I have two similar anecdotes.

    The first involves slipping Jean Thevenet’s Domaine de la Bongran Vire-Clesse “Cuvee Tradition E.J. Thevenet” white Burgundy as a “ringer” in a single-blind comparison tasting of top 1995 vintage white Burgundies and their California Chardonnay counterparts.

    (I have Robert Parker to thank for that Bongran tip.)

    It bested all but the Peter Michael “Clos du Ciel” Chardonnay submission. (Preference vote* taken two ways: wines tasted by themselves sans cuisine, and later with the prepared lunch.)

    The second anecdote: in 2005, slipping the 1985 Domaine Diochon Moulin-à-Vent Cru Beaujolais into a 1980s decade red Burgundy tasting. Every Burghound in attendance was absolutely convinced it was a Premier Cru Burg. Disproving the notion (including Parker’s circa 1989 declaration in his interview with Wine Times — later renamed Wine Enthusiast) that Beaujolais doesn’t improve with bottle age.

    *See line-up and “Top Three” preference vote here:

    Excel file: “White Burgundies – 1995 versus California Chards”


  15. To piggyback on the age thing – it’s not true at all that the “younger” generation is more skeptical than the older, nor that they’re not willing to pay crazy prices for things that are not exponentially better than cheaper versions.

    Athletic shoes anyone? Or the latest Apple products? It’s not geriatrics who are buying those. Choices might be different, but human impulse is no different.

    Other than that, the problem with Per Se is not unique. Once a chef is managing different restaurants in different states, it’s hard to keep the quality that made the original special in the first place. It’s not just Keller.

    And beyond that, it doesn’t have to be a multiple-restaurant problem. I don’t want to mention names but we’ve all had less-than-stellar experiences at widely-lauded restaurants. If you want to keep it to NYC, tourists come to Little Italy and to Manhattan’s Chinatown and are any restaurants in either place really all that good? Or the pizza from the usual top ten pizzerias that’s supposed to be the “best” in the country?

    Those are of a different type, but the principle is the same. When a new place arrives, people are excited and the place is focused on making a name. After a few years, it’s hard to retain that first year excitement.

    Too bad for Keller. And the NYT is probably the only paper with the clout to actually matter.

    Kind of like wine criticism, where one single voice can wield considerable clout . . .

  16. I have two experiences at French Laundry, both times as a guest. The first time with 6 people including a well known winemaker and spouse. The host handed me the wine list suggesting he wanted 5 or 6 bottles ordered throughout the meal for specific courses. So there was a little extra pressure. Even though I was selecting them in time, there wasn’t once when the wine was presented before the plates were cleared. I was so concerned about the wines I didn’t even pay much attention to the food. Robotic precision according to the plan.

  17. Per Se, Flavor Town, Altamarea, 21 Club all recipients of “scathing” reviews and each with greater online and social feedback…interesting.

    First some background on Mr Wells.

    Slate says Wells is a “Populist Hero”. I don’t care about the politics of Mr. Wells in the least, my focus is on the demographics of readership and the money from online subscriptions and the social interactions with other online magazines. Look at the online social buzz from a restaurant review that a very small slice of the population has actually dined at or can afford to. Amazing stuff.

    Based upon a Pew survey there is a high degree of view/readership who watch irreverent comedy news like Daily Show and Colbert who also read the NYT. …

    Using the Pew statistics combined with some opinion from the NYT itself
    One may believe Mr. Wells has sparked a populist movement within the NYT paid readership…also interesting.

    We can also conclude that 50% of their audience is a demographic under the age of 54 and is in an upper bracket of income.

    There have also been 4 NYT food critics in the last 10 years. Imagine if Parker or Laube or you Steve were replaced 4 times in the last 10 years! And then imagine if the readership of WS/WE/RP had a slant towards younger audiences who liked The Daily Show? Do you think the lead wine reviewer might change their tune about Harlan or Screaming Eagle? What happens if Laube suddenly said “Barefoot Cellars Sparkling Wine is Spring Break Forever in a Glass!” That is basically what Mr. Wells said about Senor Frogs.

    The difference is you Steve, or Laube, or Parker wouldn’t review a $3 or $5 wine with a full front page write up in your respective magazines, giving it 85 points, and then saying it’s fun, drinkable and worth every penny. I also highly doubt that a front page story would be written about how “over-rated and over-priced” Screaming Eagle is. Not just a 93 point review mention in the ratings section, but an 89 point review and then dedicate the cover and a full page to “dismantling an icon”.

    Just imagine if WS Top 100 featured 2-Buck Chuck or Barefoot as their Number 1 wine of the year!

    Wells uses the terms “canonic, heirloom furniture, greatest hits, landmark, hermetic, protracted march” with irreverent affect. Every rock band from the 60’s/70’s still performing today has multiple greatest hits, a canon of hit songs they play at concerts, look like heirloom furniture on their protracted march of “final concerts” around the world to sold out crowds, to higher and higher ticket prices. And no one cares. Sold out stadiums. No new material. Aging voices. Per Se’ or Rolling Stones or Eagles…take your pick.

    Imagine Steve if you starting using descriptors like “bong water” in your wine reviews? That irreverence is purposeful, not a helpful descriptor to a chef or a winemaker.

    I think the moral of the story Steve is, the NYT found a reviewer their online readership wanted. Always follow the money, in this case growing online subscribers who share content.

  18. David S., I agree with everything you say. The business of reviewing (wines, restaurants, whatever) is indeed a business. There are aspects that the general public is completely unaware of.

  19. David,

    Some newspaper readership projections from 2005 that might now be factoids . . .


    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (October 10, 2005, Page C1ff):

    “Black & White and Read by Fewer”


    By James Rainey
    Times Staff Writer

    In a recent e-mail chat about the future of their business, several young New York Times reporters concluded with dismay that most of their friends don’t subscribe to the newspaper.

    . . .

    A Media Management Center study reached an even more alarming conclusion regarding younger readers — estimating that by 2010, only 9% of those in their 20s will read a newspaper every day.

    . . .

  20. Supplemental.

    Courtesy of Pew Research Center:

    Chart: “Newspapers: Daily Readership by Age:
    Percentage nationally who read any daily newspaper yesterday”

    “18-24 [years]” = 17% in 2014

    (Source: Source: Nielsen Scarborough USA+ 1999 – 2014, Release 1)

  21. Excerpt from The New York Times Online
    (published March 21, 2015):

    “The Curious (and Vital) Power of Print”


    By Margaret Sullivan
    “The Public Editor” Column

    . . .

    More than 70 percent of all revenue at The [New York] Times came from print last year [2014]. The biggest share of that is “consumer revenue” from print — almost exclusively, that’s from people who buy the newspaper either with a home-delivery subscription or on the newsstand. But print advertising revenue is very important, too.

    More than a million people still buy the Sunday paper each week. The number has declined to about 1.1 million from 1.8 million at its height in 1993. And about 645,000 people still pay for the daily paper, which has taken the biggest hit. (The daily numbers fell by about 6 percent last year; on Sunday, the number fell by about 3.5 percent.)

    A lot of YOUNGER PEOPLE buy and read the paper in print. Of all subscribers, 23 percent are in their 20s, 30s and 40s — that’s hundreds of thousands each week. They can’t all be journalists.

    And on the opposite side of the spectrum, the TYPICAL DIGITAL TIMES SUBSCRIBER IS decidedly NOT A MILLENNIAL, wielding her selfie stick and heading off to Coachella. No, the MEDIAN AGE of the DIGITAL SUBSCRIBER is a graying (but no doubt Pilates-practicing) 54, not much younger than the MEDIAN AGE of the PRINT SUBSCRIBER, which is 60.

    . . .

    One more fact: The print readers are among the most engaged with The Times’s digital offerings; these are not two separate categories of readers.

    . . .

  22. Postscript.

    In a comment above I praised the 1985 Domaine Diochon Vieilles Vignes Moulin-à-Vent as a stunning example of a cru Beaujolais that can (did) age magnificently.

    Let me add one more.

    Earlier today I organized a client’s wine cellar. As a lark I took home a bottle of 1999 Georges Duboeuf Domaines des Quartre Vents cru Fleurie as a keepsake for my labors.

    I drank it with a simply prepared dish of spinach artichoke ravioli.


    The first time I’ve experienced an aged Beaujolais that exhibited none of its prototypical berry fruit, and instead offered up lovely ripe cassis (aroma and flavor) and a “liquid cashmere” texture reminiscent of a “mini-me” 1989 Château La Conseillante red Bordeaux. (One of my all-time favorite wines in the world.)

    Once again proving that a well-stored bottle of cru Beaujolais will reward you with outsized pleasure in the glass.

  23. Bob Henry says:


    “At Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Slips and Stumbles” (New York Times review)


    “France Replies to World’s 50 Best Restaurants List With 1,000 of Its Own”


    Per Se listed as second best restaurant in the world.

    By the French, no less!

    No national chauvinism there . . .

    [And on a more somber note, the restaurateur who topped the list recently died — a suicide.

    Google this headline from The Telegraph (U.K.) dated February 7th:

    “‘World’s best chef’, who committed suicide, was ‘victim of £1m wine scam'”]

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts