The professional restaurant critic can take even the most dismal dining experience and turn it into digestible fodder for readers. In fact, it’s those baffling, disappointing, and downright bad meals that often make for the most entertaining reads.
Per annual Eater tradition, here’s a look at the best of what critics had to say about the worst restaurant experiences. In keeping with the spirit of 2017, reviews were about more than unfortunate food on a plate. This year’s crop of beleaguered critics asked big questions: Should a supposed hero of the working class charge $7 for a hot dog? How does the highest-grossing restaurant group get away with its culturally appropriative decor? And is this restaurant racist?
For attempts at the answers — plus expertly barbed descriptions of some really terrible food — read on.
Besha Rodell at Tao, Los Angeles
Former LA Weekly critic Besha Rodell set out to understand Tao, the massively successful New York-based mini chain. She wanted to know how a place that serves expensive, mediocre food and “blithely offers bottle service under a giant, reclining Buddha statue as paintings of demure geishas cast their eyes alluringly downward behind the bar” could be the highest-grossing restaurant in America.
But, failing to reach that understanding, and faced with unexpectedly bad food, what else was Rodell to to do but write a zero-star takedown? Instead of “expensive, decent, Americanized versions of Chinese and Japanese classics,” she dined on “dumpling skins so thick and glutinous that eating them was a little like biting into semi-coagulated library paste.” Uni was of “the wan, dull-colored variety that you find in small-town, landlocked sushi bars, its creaminess turning to liquid, its oceanic pungent flavor edging on acridity.” America, she concludes, deserves better.
For the kill: “The food isn’t that much worse than what’s available at any number of popular chain restaurants, from the higher end through fast food (though I would much rather eat the orange chicken at P.F. Chang’s or Panda Express than the orange chicken at Tao).”
Jay Rayner at Le Cinq, Paris
Guardian critic Jay Rayner is famously biting, but a trip to Le Cinq in Paris inspired a takedown that nearly sparked international conflict. The very fancy, Michelin-starred restaurant did nothing right, from the decor (“It is decorated in various shades of taupe, biscuit, and fuck you”) to the food (“A main of pigeon is requested medium, but served so pink it just might fly again given a few volts”) to the service (“There is only one thing worse than being served a terrible meal: being served a terrible meal by earnest waiters who have no idea just how awful the things they are doing to you are”). The French were not pleased.
For the kill: “If I work hard, with luck, one day I may be able to forget.”
Ryan Sutton at Public Kitchen, New York
Eater NY senior critic Ryan Sutton declared Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Public Kitchen New York City’s worst new restaurant in a zero-star review with all the requisite one-liners. Although Sutton notes a bad meal at a restaurant in Vongerichten’s international empire isn’t out of the ordinary, he describes the mystifyingly buzzy Public Kitchen as nothing more than a “generically bad hotel restaurant.”
Take, for example, the black truffle pizza, a Vongerichten staple. At Public, “the kitchen charred the exterior crust to a carbonic black, while the interior drooped flaccidly. The signature fungi paste, in turn, exhibited the color and texture of wet mud.” Service doesn’t make up for it. Sutton writes, “The staff at Public find a way to make the concessioners at Yankee Stadium look four-star by comparison.”
For the kill: “Even Manhattan clam chowder, the accompaniment to grilled salmon (ordered medium rare, delivered medium well), turns out not to be actual soup, but a thin, saccharine, barely spoonable sauce of tomato and chile oil; it’s precisely the type of liquid one might expect to find scrapped off the side of a hot steel buffet.”
Pete Wells at Locol, Oakland
Some reviews only become scathing with context. In the early days of 2017, Pete Wells dropped a goose egg on Locol, the mission-driven fast-food restaurant from chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi. The New York-based New York Times dining critic traveled all the way to Oakland to critique the second location of Locol, whose aim is to create jobs and serve healthier fast food to communities that need it.
Wells, who typically reviews fine dining or casual chef-driven spots, was especially displeased with the chicken: “Inside a thin sheath of fried coating, this composite of ground meat is mysteriously bland and almost unimaginably dry,” he writes. “It can be had as a single patty between buns with coleslaw, as the Fried Chicken Burg, or in a paper cup, with barbecue sauce, as bite-size Chicken Nugs. But the best thing to do with it is pretend it doesn’t exist.”
Many thought the review was unfairly harsh, and internet backlash was swift. (The Oakland location Wells reviewed ended up closing in June.)
For the kill: “Mr. Patterson and Mr. Choi seem to have thought about the social dimensions of fast food so much that they now see their target audience as problems to be solved, not customers to be pleased. The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it.”
Tom Perkins at Made in Detroit, Detroit
The fact that a restaurant from rap-rock star Kid Rock was the subject of a negative review should come as no surprise, but Tom Perkins’s problems with Made in Detroit run deep. In the Detroit Metro Times, he writes that he can “forgive that the House-Brined Wings that arrive wet with the ‘Detroit honey hot sauce’ are a good pick on paper, but leave you searching for the ‘honey and hot’ through the wall of sodium.” The American goulash, a $16 “sub-average dish of glorified Hamburger Helper that crackles with sodium,” also gets a pass, as do “flavorless Brussels sprouts” and the Hamtramck burger, a “mostly meaty and mushy” sandwich that “seems to absorb any discernible flavor outside of the omnipresent sodium.” But Perkins can’t forgive the prices.
For the kill: “Really, there’s no serious crime at Kid Rock’s Made In Detroit beyond the price point... That’s a bit odd since Ritchie bills himself as a working-class hero.”
Lesley Chesterman at Bar George, Montreal
Lesley Chesterman began her meal at Bar George, a British restaurant in a historic Montreal building, with a cocktail that was “pretty to look at” but “sadly fell as flat as that Tom Cruise Mummy movie.” The drink, she writes in a zero-star Montreal Gazette review, turned out to be a metaphor for the meal to come. The menu was “gimmicky,” a cream of mushroom soup “didn’t taste a bit of mushroom,” and a terrine of pork hock had a “salt problem” that “marred the entire round of main courses.” Dessert wasn’t any better: “A suet-based roly-poly cake topped with sea buckthorn berries and clotted cream was the worst dessert I’ve tasted in eons,” Chesterman says. “I pushed the plate away after just one salty, pasty bite.”
For the kill: “The website describes the restaurant as ‘a modern-day rendezvous, cooking classic U.K. fare, slapped with Québécois cheek.’ Why put a label on it? Why not just make good food? Especially in June, when hearty British dishes are about as appropriate as a tweed overcoat.”
Brian Reinhart at Hot Joy, Dallas
Brian Reinhart didn’t intend for his review of Hot Joy to be a commentary on cultural appropriation, but upon visiting, the Dallas Observer critic realized that Hot Joy’s biggest problem wasn’t its food (although that was certainly a problem), but race: “Hot Joy is a clueless white-dude fantasy in which Asian identity and cuisine are reduced to a string of ironic clichés.” These clichés take the form of a “fetishistic interior” and a jumbled menu of every “East Asian food that’s middlebrow-approved,” and the food doesn’t even live up to the stereotypes.
“Its foods billed as spicy and funky, are instead sweetened and tamed,” Reinhart writes. “I’ve suffered through herby pad Thai suffocating under a thick gloopy sweet sauce about as spicy as plain yogurt.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hot Joy is now closed.
For the kill: “If Hot Joy’s attitude shows a shallow respect for Asia, its haphazard cooking betrays the kind of overconfidence that grows from ignorance.”
Bethany Jean Clement at Bulletproof Coffee, Seattle: In a review of Seattle’s first Bulletproof cafe for the Seattle Times, columnist Bethany Jean Clement makes it hilariously clear she’s not buying into the cult. At the Seattle cafe, the allegedly brain-enhancing, butter-infused coffee is bad, but the food — rubbery deviled eggs and a breakfast burrito, “which they’ll heat up for you if you like” — is worse. For the kill: “With the exception of the wan porkiness of the bites that include floppy bits of uncured bacon, it’s more of a textural experience than a taste sensation, like eating a gummy, tasteless cloud.”
Craig LaBan at Scarpetta, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan skewers Scarpetta’s Philly debut in a one-star review. The clientele generated “an unexpected fog of body sweat, cleaning fluid, and strong cologne,” the servers offered “overeager-to-please enthusiasm,” and several of the entrees “were served less than hot for $30-plus a plate.” For the kill: “It was a kind of generic pomp more typical of casino cooking, where seemingly every dish is plated as a little tower, piled high and glossed with stock.”
Gretchen Kurtz at French 75, Denver: During critic Gretchen Kurtz’s disappointing meal at Denver restaurant French 75, which she recounted for Westword, nothing was great, but the desserts took the cake. “Pastry that should’ve been light and airy yet sturdy enough to hold ice cream had the texture of stale baguette,” Kurtz writes. For the kill: “Three months in, the tables are already so scuffed they look greasy. The bathrooms are down so many empty corridors, you get the creeps finding your way alone at night. Servers might tell you that the dessert menu is a postcard they’ll mail for you, but that’s if they even remember to bring the dessert menu in the first place.”
Jay Rayner at Fancy Crab, London: Rayner is the snarkiest version of himself in a Guardian review of pricey king crab-themed restaurant Fancy Crab. According to the critic, Fancy Crab is “a crab restaurant for recently married couples who hope they’ll get divorced before they ever reach the companionable stage in which one of them brushes their teeth while the other has a pee.” For the kill: “Fancy Crab isn’t good. It’s a terrible waste of their money and our money and everybody’s time.”
Brandon Watson at El Burro, Austin: Austin Chronicle critic Brandon Watson wonders why El Burro exists. The Tex-Mex restaurant serves queso with the “artificial tang and plastic texture of a Kraft single” and queso fundido consisting of “purulent clumps of cheese drowned in an eighth of an inch of oil, as if they poured the bacon — grease and all — straight from the frying pan.” For the kill: “Everything about El Burro feels like a defeated shrug. In a town where some of our Tex-Mex institutions are failing, it seems particularly egregious to replace heritage with hologram.”
The Infatuation LA at Vespertine, LA: In a restaurant review for these times, the Infatuation LA editors used Instagram stories to chronicle their experience at tasting-menu sensation Vespertine (before being yelled at by Vespertine staff for their phone use and for infuriating “the space emperor” chef Jordan Kahn). They commented on the space (“outer space is pretty”) and the food (“oh look we can eat a tree”), and concluded that Vespertine is “complete and utter garbage.” For the kill: “It’s a miserable, dark trap.”
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.