clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

NYT Critic Pete Wells on Why He Used a Dining Decoy

Daniel, NYC
Daniel, NYC
Photo: Daniel Krieger
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

After taking away a star from chef Daniel Boulud's famed New York City restaurant Daniel earlier this month, New York Times critic has responded to commenters on his review to defend his evaluation of the service at Daniel. Weeks later, Wells now concludes that "there's a subtle insult in the two-tier treatment" between VIPs and normal diners he saw at the restaurant. Wells also offers further explanation on his decision to use a decoy at Daniel, an actually anonymous colleague he had make a reservation 15 minutes apart from his own so they could compare experiences.

The key problem Wells found with the service at Daniel was that the restaurant didn't treat all diners equally, favoring VIPS (like Wells) while "turning its best face away from the unknowns." Wells writes in the comments why he found the double standard of service to be so damning, using the example of his having gotten a finger bowl to clean his hands while the decoy did not: "I think there's a subtle insult in the two-tier treatment in this case — it implies that the customer who didn't get the finger bowl doesn't know any better."

Wells also acknowledges that VIP treatment like giving extra food and wine can't be given to every guest "if a restaurant wants to stay in business." Rather, he says, "some of those attentions should be part of the standard package." The mistake Daniel made, Wells suggests, is not that it paid so much attention to the critic, but that it paid so little to the regular diner: "How much money do you need to spend at Daniel before somebody asks if you liked even one of your courses?"

On the topic of the regular diner decoy, Wells offers a bit of information on why he chose to use that strategy. As he mentioned in the review, Wells writes again in the comments that he had heard "widely diverging accounts of the service." Apparently, the idea of using a decoy came about because after a meal at Daniel, Wells suspected he was "getting different service" from the other tables. Wells says that the layout of the dining room meant that none of his "several tricks" to "find out if [his] service is substantially better" were helpful, so he decided to send his colleague in hopes of getting a more accurate view. The decoy strategy was not just about confirming rumors, he writes, but also a way for him to "make the review more reliable and objective."

Wells' review and his decision to use a decoy have prompted much debate about the efficacy of anonymous critics. Slate's L.V. Anderson has suggested critics like Wells "stop pretending they're anonymous," while restaurateur Drew Nieporent told Eater NY that having critics dine anonymously or even "pseudonymously" has value if critics find "that that's the best way to assess a place accurately and honestly." For his part, Wells stands by his decision to send in the decoy writing "I'd do it again if I thought it was necessary."

· Serving the Stuff of Privilege [NYT]
· NYT Critic Pete Wells Drops Daniel to 3 Stars, Uses Decoy [-E-]
· All Pete Wells Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Daniel Boulud Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Critic Coverage on Eater [-E-]


60 E 65th St New York, NY 10065