The New York Times reported that Mimi Sheraton, the paper’s food critic from 1976 to 1983 and the first woman to hold that role, died yesterday at 97 at NYU Langone medical center. Sheraton, who grew up in New York, had a profound influence on modern food criticism, pioneering making reservations under false names and wearing wigs to dinner, in order to see how restaurants would treat “real” patrons. “The longer I reviewed restaurants, the more I became convinced that the unknown customer has a completely different experience from either a valued patron or a recognized food critic,” she wrote in Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life. “For all practical purposes, they might as well be in different restaurants.”
Sheraton had a reputation for being a tough and exacting critic, ensuring she had an exhaustive experience of a restaurant before giving her opinion. She visited restaurants far more than the three times required by her job, and once famously spent 11 months tasting all 1,196 items available in the Bloomingdale’s food department for New York Magazine in 1972. She also worked at Seventeen and Good Housekeeping, wrote numerous books including 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, and most recently was a food columnist for the Daily Beast.
‘’When I took that job, I went into the archive and read all the critics, and I ended up having so much respect for her. She was tough, fearless and forthright,” Ruth Reichl, the Times critic from 1993 to 1999, told Robert D. McFadden. “For the most part, I really agreed with her taste and I got a very strong sense of the person behind the reviews. The longer I had the job, the more I respected her. She was so unpretentious and so unafraid of offending anyone.’’
Multiple food writers also noted on social media how Sheraton continued to use Twitter to speak her mind, repeatedly responding to stories about tuna melts and pasta salad with some variation of “yuck!” And editor Laurie Muchnick wondered if reviews like Sheraton’s would even be possible now; “I wonder if a Times reviewer could still eat at a restaurant 8 times before reviewing it or if they’d be told there’s no budget.”
The couple of times she tweeted at me I never responded because I was so in awe of the fact that Mimi Sheraton said something mean to me about something I wrote. Made me feel great. https://t.co/iyzjuZlgQf— Jason Diamond (@imjasondiamond) April 7, 2023
Sheraton’s legacy is one of brutal honesty. She pierced through the bubble of hype that food criticism can easily slip into, where the fact that a self-selecting group of people are all going to the same place begins to be mistaken for quality. Sheraton seemed to be comfortable calling out when the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, even when it came to something as simple as her home appliances. As she remarked of her Dualit toaster in 2004: ‘’Every food writer in the world said it was the best. And it’s dreadful.’’