Being a professional restaurant critic can be a hazardous job. Over the past 12 months, restaurant critics have been forced to endure such horrifying indignities as hockey-puck like slabs of meat, mushy pork chops, incompetent servers, incompetent dishes, incompetent chefs, and more likely than not, incredibly uncomfortable chairs.
But thank god there's schadenfreude: Watching each critic wrestle with what went wrong can be a delight — especially when the barbs fly fast-and-loose. Here now, a look at some of the year's most scathing restaurant reviews, including the one-liners that best show how critics can go in for the kill.
Pete Wells at Kappo Masa
Brutal, illogical, relentless: When Pete Wells is outraged, his adjectives let it show. In this zero-star review, the NYT critic relays his major sticker shock at Masayoshi Takayama's long-awaited second sushi counter Kappo Masa, punctuating each description of a middling dish with its inflated price point for maximum shock value. Goes one line: "Menu price for cress with wasabi dressing: $18. Amount I paid: $38, making this the first restaurant where I have actually looked over the check before paying and missed a $20 overcharge for a salad." Goes the kicker: "Stars I might have given Kappo Masa if the prices were, say, 20 percent lower: one. Stars I am giving it: zero." But the review's best line once again shows off Wells' panache for the backhanded compliment:
For the Kill: "Every once in a while, something genuinely remarkable would arrive, as if from another kitchen."
Jay Rayner at Pret A Manger
No one spews vitriol quite like The Guardian's Jay Rayner, whose reviews are often paragraph after paragraph of one-liners and hyperbolic declarations. A summer visit to Pret A Manger — yes, the sandwich chain — was no exception, as Pret launched its first-ever "upscale" dinner service in a location outside London. According to Rayner, the act of sipping a £25 bottle of prosecco inside the fast-casual space "may be among the most depressing 10 minutes of my life." Also not helping: "tile grouting"-like hummus, meatballs of "indeterminate animal," and a vaguely Lebanese dip that's "an insult to a whole country." The takeaway: Pret, stick to lunch.
For the Kill: "As to the kale and cauliflower macaroni cheese, I genuinely do not understand how anybody in the food business can taste that and think it's a good idea. It needs to be put in a burlap sack and drowned in the nearest canal."
Ryan Sutton at One World Trade
Speaking of exorbitant costs, at the myriad dining options at One World Trade center, price is just one of the many, many things that Eater's chief critic Ryan Sutton deems a "brand new level of absurdity." Sutton lays out "everything you need to know" about dining inside the tourist trap, from the obvious price-gouging ("Yes, this is where you get ripped off. And in case you're wondering, [a bottle of] water is $5.44 with tax.") to the subpar food ("Flatbread pizza, finished with flavorless mozzarella, is about as gourmet as a frozen slice of Elio's.") And watch out for the bathrooms — they're a comedy sketch waiting to happen.
For the Kill: "'Sir, I'm sorry, there's actually a bit of a wait for the bar,' a host declares, in an effort to stop me from walking inside the One Mix space. 'That's great,' I reply. 'I'm already halfway done with my meal.' The confusion arose because I had exited the restaurant about twenty seconds prior, and it's likely you will do the same because the restrooms are on a separate floor."
Pete Wells at Javelina
When the New York Times's Pete Wells turns on the sarcasm, he goes all-out: In his zero-star review of Tex-Mex spot Javelina, Wells frames every criticism under the guise of praise, lest native Texans turn on him en masse. "It's not every restaurant that gives you something to think about on your way home," he says of mysteriously missing dishes and hidden ingredients. "The margaritas have a slight chemical taste that I was thankful for because it tended to keep my own alcohol intake to near-Mormon levels," he says of the restaurant's thoughtful (if subtle) encouragement toward responsible drinking. But the line that most captures this faux-earnestness — as well as major hospitality fails — is the one below.
For the Kill: "One night, the bar made me a Paloma in a pint glass, while a woman at my table got her Paloma in a much smaller glass. Everybody knows women drink less than men, so we appreciated the thoughtfulness. To avoid making her self-conscious, I suppose, the restaurant even charged us both the same amount, $13."
Tom Sietsema at Second State
It takes an odd cold-open script for the Washington Post's Tom Sietsema to get to the point of his Second State review, but once it arrives, it does so in all-caps: a banh mi sandwich is declared "AWFUL," much like everything else at this ostensibly Pennsylvania-themed restaurant. The aforementioned banh mi gets the distinction of possibly being "the sorriest version of the classic Vietnamese sandwich I've ever had," while "venison is so undercooked it practically snorts." The experience is apparently so offensive that FEMA should get involved.
For the Kill: "The young restaurant should be declared a disaster area by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, so great are its culinary misfires."
Leslie Brenner at Ida Claire
In today's dining landscape, could there be a worse criticism than to call out a non-chain restaurant for its "distinct corporate aftertaste"? Dallas Morning News's Leslie Brenner does that and more in her one-star take on Ida Claire, which wields the words "clunky" and "crude" several times. (The offenders: crawfish ravioli in a "heavy" sauce, "heavy-handed" layer cake, and overdressed salad.) A dessert option arrived without the bulky adjectives but did manage to offer Brenner a candied garnish that "was so tough it nearly broke my tooth."
For the Kill: "If you're thinking of venturing into Ida Claire anyway, and ordering something relatively simple and straightforward, like a muffuletta sandwich (how can it miss?), hear this: It was the foulest thing I've tasted in some years, eliciting from my dining companions a string of invective that can't be printed in a family newspaper."
• San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer declares that the $14 million Crystal Jade is the restaurant equivalent of "amateur hour," from its overly sprawling menu to its off-putting service (to serve one dish, "the manager snapped on rubber gloves like a doctor preparing for a proctology exam"). For the Kill: "Roast chicken ($17 for half) looked as if it had spent time in the fryer but stopped short of becoming fried chicken. It lived in a greasy no-man's land — and no man I know would love it."
• In May, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan tore into the first-ever Philly location of the Korean chain Bonchon, finding little to like in the zero-bell review. The zero-bell (PI's equivalent of the no-star) takedown was so rare that LaBan offered a follow-up about the 17 no-star reviews that have run during his 17-year tenure at the paper. For the Kill: "The rest of the fryer-forward menu, instead of being bulgogi's big breakthrough, turns out to be the worst Korean food I've ever eaten."
• The New York Post's Steve Cuozzo mirrored Ryan Sutton's sentiments about the food at the World Trade Center, going all-out with his review headline: "The food at 1 WTC is a tower of garbage." The review also features the year's best "sad critic" photo, with Cuozzo frowning dramatically at a "Brooklyn slider," deemed an "affront." For the Kill: "The feast included flavor-free 'tuna crudo' that would be indistinguishable in a blind tasting from mammal, fish, or Jell-O."
• In what reads as a zero-star goose egg (but is actually somehow a one-star review), Montreal Gazette's Lesley Chesterman describes the celebrity-filled Accords le Bistro as "the kind of restaurant I dread a tourist might stumble into," so offensive is its representation of Montreal's dining scene. For the Kill: "Frankly, [a starter called "variations on parsnips"] tasted like a mix between apple juice and nail polish remover. This starter is sold for $13, and I figure the food cost is about $2."
• Eater's own Ryan Sutton boldly declares "You Don't Need to Eat at Buddakan or Morimoto Anymore" in this two-part review that sees the once-hot Buddakan getting the zero-star treatment. For the Kill: "Mapo tofu, normally a showcase for the numbing qualities of Sichuan cuisine, sports an out-of-left-field sweetness that makes it taste like it was prepared by Chef Boyardee. Dan dan, a classic pairing of egg noodles, pork sausage, chile oil, and scallions, smacks of bitter hand soap."
• Just one line into his review of London restaurant Sackville's, The Guardian's Jay Rayner is declaring that "God knows you're not going to want to eat there." For the Kill: "I can do this job because I'm greedy. I can even clear the plate of food I find distinctly lacking. But this is uneatable. It's the Rohypnol of desserts, a dish with the potential to slap you into a coma."