So a 'Times' Critic Walks into a T.G.I. Friday's ... The New York Times sent critics to review chain restaurants this week. David Corcoran reveals what they found, while blogger Ezra Klein describes the conceit as an exercise in contempt for middle America.

So a 'Times' Critic Walks into a T.G.I. Friday's ...

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So the most recent New York Times dining section has a review of the restaurant Momofuku Ko. That's great, but since Momofuku Ko has twelve seats, the review is kind of theoretical. But earlier this week the Times passed judgment on some restaurants that a normal person can actually get into.

Here's a selection. "The dining room is unexpectedly sophisticated." "There are soft, upholstered banquettes and mellow lighting in a luxury of space, a subdued harbor feel." The restaurant in question? Red Lobster. Yes, the Times reviewed chain restaurants, open to all and thousands of locations around the country. There was Outback, Chili's, T. G. I. Friday's, and Olive Garden. Dave Corcoran reviewed T. G. I. Friday's for the Times. I would say, Dave, what would you say? A largely favorable review?

Mr. DAVID CORCORAN (Food Critic, New York Times): It was a mixed review.

PESCA: OK. Yeah.

Mr. CORCORAN: But you know, there were definitely things to like.

PESCA: I think by the standards of T. G. I. Friday's, they maybe did their job in that you left full.

Mr. CORCORAN: We certainly left full. Yeah. As I said in the review, we lumbered away from the restaurant.

PESCA: And sitting there in the background is Ezra Klein, who's a writer for the American Prospect, who on his blog weighed in on these series of reviews, and Ezra, we'll get to you in a second, OK?

Mr. EZRA KLEIN (Writer, The American Prospect): All right.

PESCA: All right. Dave, I just want to ask you, are you a regular reviewer for the Times?

Mr. CORCORAN: I'm a reviewer for the New Jersey section of the Times. The Times has four suburban, weekly sections that come out in the Sunday paper. Readers in Connecticut, Westchester County, Long Island and New Jersey. I do New Jersey.

PESCA: So when your editor called and said, hey, we've got an assignment. Were you saying, all right, an expense account, maybe there will be a celebrity chef involved, and then you heard the words "T. G. I. Friday's." So what was your reaction?

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, I was intrigued. I thought it was a great idea, and you know, typically, I do the kind of place where the, you know, it's a 32-seat bistro run by a guy named Philippe and he owns the place and it's small and the dishes are quite nice and refined, and here my editor was asking me to take on a place that has 900 outlets throughout the country, so it was a challenge.

PESCA: Did you and your editor talk about tone? You know, be as vicious if you need to as you would with Philippe's place?

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, we don't use the word "vicious."

PESCA: Offer as much insight to the readers as you would with something else?

Mr. CORCORAN: I think the idea was to apply the same critical standards that we use to review any restaurant and so there is nothing specifically said about tone, but...

PESCA: But did they - I mean, did they say, this is for a review for people who've never eaten there or a review for people considering it or...?

Mr. CORCORAN: I think it was more like, well, here's this universe out there of restaurants where most people go. Not, you know, not just Times' readers, readers of the daily news, people who don't read newspapers. This is where, you know, in contrast to the 32-seat bistro, these are places that seat hundreds and hundreds of diners every night, and it was something that we hadn't really covered.

PESCA: And why not cast a critical eye on them? Well, Ezra, you took a look at those reviews, and what struck you about them?

Mr. KLEIN: As a writer they struck me, I mean, David's, it should be said, was a very sort of technically fine, and I thought a quite actually positive and fair review of Fridays.

PESCA: Yes. He quoted his 12-year-old not liking the ribs and that reflected the real dining experience.

Mr. KLEIN: It was all there. What shocked me about a couple of these, because they're all written by different people, were how overwritten they were, as if they had descended into the jungle and were reporting back on what they found.

I'm going to read you a bit from the P. F. Chang's review, which says "This chain restaurant is not for the meek of spirit. The one we visited at the Market Fair Mall in Princeton, New Jersey, was cold enough to raise gooseflesh, dark enough to make us feel as if we were spelunking and noisy enough to bring to mind academic studies on cacophonous torture." And I sort of read that and thought I wonder what the guys in the Baghdad bureau think of that. Do they think to themselves, you know, it's not for the meek of spirit, Baghdad?

PESCA: It's a review!

Mr. KLEIN: It is a review, that's my point.

PESCA: It was done with flair, maybe unlike the T. G. I. Friday's.

Mr. KLEIN: Unlike tchotchke flair?

PESCA: Yeah. Unlike the T. G. I. Friday's entree, but...

Mr. KLEIN: What...

PESCA: Go ahead.

Mr. KLEIN: What struck me about their reviews was this basically. Was that they didn't review them as if they would review a normal restaurant. They didn't decide on this week's review we're going to go T. G. I. F. or P. F. Chang's. They reviewed as if they were reviewing a very sort of peculiar cultural phenomenon, one that they weren't really supposed to understand and everybody was shocked really.

I mean, the reviews had this very strange, oh, my God, the food isn't bad. There's actually a line, "True confession, I had a great meal at the Cheesecake Factory in White Plains," and I thought that "true confession," as if like they're going to be excommunicated from Manhattan, was fascinating, and I don't say this is a sort of a faux pas.

Like I am your biggest coastal elite. I go to farmers' markets. I bike around. I have artisanal cheese. I just - but the way the reviews were framed was like a lack of self-consciousness about, you know, how much of eating is inspirational for everybody and where everybody's constructing their own personalities with their food.

PESCA: Well, David, Ezra largely accepted you, but what do you think of his overall take on the articles?

Mr. CORCORAN: Well, I think it's important to point out that these reviewed appeared in our suburban weeklies. So our readers in Manhattan did not even see these reviews unless they looked at them online...

PESCA: Thank God. Their heads would have exploded!

Mr. CORCORAN: Brought in secretly across the George Washington Bridge. So it's not, you know, we are the suburban weeklies and we are not reviewing restaurants in Manhattan and, you know, frankly, there are not a lot of places in New Jersey like Momofuku Ko which Frank Rooney gave three stars to yesterday.

Although there are lots of good, even fine, restaurants in New Jersey, it's a different kind of place, different atmosphere, and so I think - I think it's a little unfair to read these reviews as if, you know, the Reverend Frank Rooney or Ruth Reifel had been lowered into the heart of darkness from Manhattan.

PESCA: Ezra, I read your blog and you blog about issues and politics and policies, and you had a post about unionization in North Carolina. It got eight comments, and you had a good chart about healthcare reform, and you got 15 comments. And last time I checked, your post about these restaurant reviews got well over a hundred comments! What are people saying about the Times' reviews of Red Lobster?

Mr. KLEIN: Yeah. The truth of the matter is political blog readers like nothing so much as to stop talking about politics. Movies, food, whatever it may be, they're just desperate to get away from actual politics, but you know, people were arguing. Some people said their views were tremendously elitist and they couldn't believe how they were, and some said, you know, these are fine. They were - it was a joke. It was a sort of - it had the aesthetic of, you know, when a Times' viewer comes into Momofuku and tries to figure out the decor and all of it, and you know, as I say it's a cacophony, but not a torturous one.

I mean, you know, people disagree, but what was interesting was how many folks couldn't figure out where this came from. To them, eating at these chains was so normal, and the idea that, you know, this would be the sort of thing that people growing up do and then they would choose their identity in contrast to. Some choose to be the sort of person who eats at a chain, some choose to be the sort of person who doesn't eat at a chain, you know, you can go either way.

And what was interesting to them about the review was that these are people who hadn't eaten at the chain and that somewhere in their like, you know, mid-40s or whatever, I haven't actually checked any birth certificates, somewhere in their mid-40s or wherever, were jumping in and finally trying to experience a sort of slice of Americana and then trying to figure out what their sort of tone and take and opinion and relationship to it should be.

And I mean, I think you saw on this sort of wild variations in tone among the reviews that that was actually a complicated process. That people weren't just reviewing restaurants, but they were trying to review, some of them, not all of them, and I think David didn't do this, was trying to review a type of living that they weren't all that familiar with.

PESCA: Yeah. Ezra Klein of the American Prospect and David Corcoran of the New York Times. Thanks for being two pigs in our blanket.

Mr. KLEIN: Thank you.

Mr. CORCORAN: Thanks, Mike.


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