After writing a critical review of chefs Roy Choi (Locol, LA) and Daniel Patterson’s (Coi, SF) Locol — a feel-good restaurant mini-chain offering nutritious food at reasonable prices in underserved areas — NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells is facing a mountain of backlash. People are calling the critic — who generally reviews fine dining establishments and casual chef-driven spots — out for giving the fast food restaurant a written beating and zero stars.
Wells didn’t like the food and didn’t care for the service, and usually, in the context of a restaurant review, that’s that. But this write up struck its audience differently. Though the critic acknowledges Locol’s greater mission, he maintains that Choi and Patterson seem to have forgotten that the taste of the food they serve is crucial to their overall goal. In short: “The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it.”
Choi responded to the NYT review with a (typical Choi) big-hearted, big-pictured take. In brief, “I welcome Pete's review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don't know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever.”
Meanwhile, readers of the review and fans of Locol struck back at what they saw as an unfair takedown of a restaurant aiming to change a rigid status quo.
@pete_wells Your version of skepticism: "As a privileged person with options, should you eat the food at locol? I myself prefer La Coucou."— Jim Hill (@James_browski) January 4, 2017
This Instagram comment on Choi’s response seems timely:
Commenters were not any less supportive of Locol on Facebook:
And on the NYT review page itself, sarcasm and anger leaked out over every word:
There's a McD not too far from there Mr Wells could have visited. They have good fries; try the chicken sandwich — XPeterC
Is this a food review or a social commentary?
The food isn't good but the reviewer REALLY wants to like it because of the "progressive labor practices" and "interior design attuned to the pulse of the city" whatever that means.
These peripherals almost certainly matter more to hipsters who want to gentrify a neighborhood than locals who are more concerned with price and taste and volume.
This review feels straight out of Portlandia. The food is dry and terrible, but the owners care about all the right social issues! — ML
Why didn't Mr. Wells dine at the location in Watts? That is my greatest question. Is it because no reader would dare dine there? If so, I agree that this restaurant has no place in Oakland since it is not a food desert. But, if he reviewed the Watts location, and if that was the only location, I'd be interested to read it. — Alisa
Sure, I've laughed at Mr. Wells' snark when directed at Guy Fieri or Thomas Keller, but to aim it at an establishment trying to bring quality ingredients at an affordable price to poor neighborhoods? This is in poor taste.
The put-downs of the food, though, have nothing on this gratuitous pot shot at the neighborhoods directly: "I don't know of any other fast-food chain that has put street culture at the heart of its locations in this way. The closest most of them come to design that reflects the surroundings is a wall of bulletproof glass."
He had to do it, didn't he? Just couldn't make it through a piece about a fast-food chain located in poor communities of color without raising the specter of crime and violence. Two wildly successful chefs take a professional gamble on these communities out of love and a sense of social justice, and the restaurant critic of the New York Times flies all the way across the country and makes a crack about bulletproof glass in those communities.
Mr. Wells: surely there's a better use for your platform than this? — Zack Fish
Wells responded to this comment:
I don't have to fly across the country to see bulletproof glass in takeout windows. There are restaurants and liquor stores with bulletproof glass here in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. In fact, every neighborhood where I've lived since I was 18 has had them. And I mentioned bulletproof glass as a negative example--it's bad, deliberately alienating design. — Pete Wells
Some readers certainly saw Wells’ point and supported his stance (though they may not have dined at the restaurant themselves).
First of all, I'd like to compliment the photographer and editor responsible for the cheeseburger photo that leads the review. It's truly horrifying looking, and perfectly captures the spirit and essence of the review. Wow. Yuck.
If you look at the Yelp reviews for this place, they fall into two categories. One is exactly like this review, shocked at being served garbage. The other couldn't care less what quality of food they get as long as the prices are cheap the vibe is cool. Brave new world!
I actually wish the review had been even tougher than it was. This is a "poor" restaurant, not a "satisfactory" one, and that's that. Some critics have actually praised this wretched pseudo-cuisine, and they ought to have been called on the carpet for their misleading dreck. And the notion that the food is somehow "healthy" is just fraudulent. It simply isn't, and it is grossly dishonest to say so. One could say it is "less unhealthy" than some other types of fast food, but that wouldn't really be effective marketing. — KLD
After remaining mum despite dozens of angry comments, Pete Wells sent out this tweet:
Our culture overvalues cynicism, undervalues skepticism, and is vague about the difference.— Pete Wells (@pete_wells) January 4, 2017