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Mimi Sheraton on Restaurant Critics and Why They Should Remain Anonymous

The legendary dining critic’s sharp wit is on display in a new podcast called Ask Mimi

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Dan Pashman, Mimi Sheraton
Vitor Hirtsch

Mimi Sheraton, food writer, author, and former restaurant critic for the New York Times, takes no prisoners. Her sharp wit is almost as quick as her brilliant smile, and she carries about her the easy confidence of a woman who knows exactly what she’s talking about. She holds some strong opinions about restaurant critics, the late Paul Bocuse, and has “never been a fan of Zagat.” On Twitter, where she’s assembled a new fan base, she’s equal parts merciless and hilarious — and, more often than not, absolutely correct.

A legend in New York City media, Sheraton was the first female critic (from 1975 until 1983) to wear hats, wigs, and elaborate disguises so she wouldn’t be recognized, according to her autobiography, Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life. She’s now a columnist at The Daily Beast, where she covers restaurants, chefs, cookbooks, and cooking at home.

Sheraton has a lot of thoughts on the state of restaurants today. She shares some of those — along with relationship advice, cooking tips, political takes, media critiques, and words of wisdom — on Ask Mimi, a new podcast from the Sporkful’s Dan Pashman. It launches on February 7 on Stitcher Premium. (Those who live in New York City may wish to attend a live taping; tickets sell out fast.)

Eater spoke with Sheraton before a recent show to get her thoughts on restaurant critics and dining out today.

Congratulations on the new podcast.

Thank you.

What do you think of restaurant criticism today?

Well I think it’s frantic in the way the restaurant scene in New York City is frantic. We have a lot of voices that I think are not worth listening to, particularly the ones from consumers, Yelp, and so on. I’ve never been a fan of Zagat. I think all of this muddies the waters. And it can be very hurtful to restaurants. I’ve never been convinced that the Zagats of the world were authentic, and that the replies are not orchestrated by restaurants.

What I think is good about the criticism now, here in New York, is we have so many more voices — although the New York Times, is by far the most powerful. At least there are many others that do have some traction. I think that’s good, and it should be a relief to Pete Wells at the New York Times, that at least there are other voices, and it isn’t only on him to make or break a restaurant.

That would have bothered me very much. To be the only voice in town is a huge responsibility. I always worried about it. Although there was New York magazine (at the time) and a few other things, there weren’t as many as there are now, because of the online critics and so on.

What critics do you personally read?

There are so many now. I read all of them online. I read Steve Cuozzo in the Post. I read Ryan Sutton on Eater. I read Bill Addison. I read Adam Platt.

Do you think restaurant critics should be anonymous?

I think it’s unfortunate so many of the critics today are coming out, revealing their faces. As far as I’m concerned staying anonymous is absolutely essential. I would not be a critic if I were in a situation where I was widely recognizable. It’s proven time and time again. You get much more special attention. You get much more special food. Anyone who says differently, I’ve always said, is a fool or a liar. Either they don’t know what can be done, to the food or the experience, or they know damn well that it makes a difference, but they don’t care.

Of course, it’s much tougher now to be a anonymous.

Were you ever recognized?

Even before the internet I was recognized a few times. There are very few things more embarrassing than to show up in a wig with glasses and have the owner say, “Good evening Miss Sheraton.”

It’s incredibly challenging. What do you do? Do you rip off the wig like superman, or do you keep up the pretense?

You’ve had your finger on the pulse of the NYC restaurant world for longer than almost anyone else. What do you think about the changes brought on by rising rents and rising wages?

The rent going up has forced a lot of places to close. Just recently in Greenwich Village, a number of favorite neighborhood places closed. But I can’t make apologies for bad food just because the rent went up. The trouble is that in order to cover the cost of increased rent and many other increased expenses — such as delivery boys, and paying higher wages, and OpenTable, and Yelp — the price they would have to charge does not justify the kind of cooking they are prepared to do. Sometimes they have to become different restaurants to justify the price, and sometimes people just don’t want to pay that much for a plate of chicken and potatoes. Above a certain price, you say, “What?”

What do you think of the impact the #MeToo movement has had on dining out?

I was at Babbo last night. I saw Joe Bastianich. We talked a little bit about it... it’s a nightmare and it’s hurt them, at the corporate level. Companies that would have events there, now feel they don’t want to do that.

But as a critic, I don’t think you should consider it when giving a restaurant a star rating. If you want to stay away because of that, I think you can stay away. But the star rating is about the food and service, and as for customers, I think they have to make up their own minds.

Any advice for aspiring food critics today?

Lots of luck! [Laughs]

You have to have two qualities. You have to know how to write well. All the food knowledge in the world isn’t gonna do you any good if you can’t put it in a readable, engaging prose. You have to know food. It’s very hard to do those two things. Anyone who wants to be that, first of all, has to eat an awful lot of food and has to know how to write.

In some ways, it’s a little easier now, because there are some people who have gotten a start through blogs. That opportunity was not available before. But if you have something sensational enough, and if it catches the public’s eye, you can skip ahead a lot of years.

Now, there are also a lot of specialties in food. I mean, if someone wants to be a vegan food critic, or a kale critic, today, they can. But I would never read them.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Additional reporting by James Park.