Thinking Back On Esquire’s Best New Restaurants… Waaay Back!
Culture has such an interesting influence on perception. In France, the Michelin Guide, which uses a team of anonymous reviewers (even the number is confidential, but it is believed to be at least a dozen), is criticized for giving too much power in the hands of too few. In the US, however, our cult of personality seems all too willing to anoint one critic, one person, arbiter over the entire country’s voluminous restaurant industry.
Granted, no one source may have the influence here that Michelin has in France, but still, several media sources, including Esquire, Bon Appetit (nb: I am an online contributor) and others, annually present the opinion of one person who is purported to have reviewed all 50 states’ best restaurants and determined the pinnacles—an area, needless to say, many times bigger than France.
Somehow, this practice seems to go without critique. How could that even be logistically possible? It’s not like picking the “World’s Most Beautiful People”—in theory, the writer has to visit enough restaurants in enough cities to vet a list. That seems like quite a daunting, and prohibitively expensive, task.
Rather than react to this year’s Esquire list (I’ve only visited one of the restaurants chosen, and I can’t say it would have made any best list I had, though I enjoyed many aspects), the recent release reminded me of a discovery of two older lists by their previous unilateral critic, John Mariani, from 1988 and 1990. I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at them with 25 years’ perspective.
In 1988, there were 34 choices from 17 locations (five each from NYC and LA, four in Chicago), which, yes, included the auspicious appearance of Charlie Trotter’s (“He brings most of it off with enormous finesse and shows a compelling belief in himself that puts him in the top ranks of Chicago chefs.”) as well as rising LA stars Joachim Splichal (in his role as a consultant), Mauro Vicenti and Patrick Healy; Cindy Pawlcyn in San Francisco, Robert Kinkead in DC, Keith Famie, Andre Soltner, and Lettuce Entertain You’s Rich Melman.
In New York, Mariani chose Bouley, San Domenico and Aquavit and a Patrick Clark concept.
The only one of the restaurants I visited in the era was Philadelphia’s game-changing high end Chinese, Susanna Foo—although I distinctly remember it more for the formality, the prices and the quality of ingredients over a great deal of innovation on the plate (mostly it seemed like classical French technique with Americanized Chinese flavors). Oh wait, I did dine at DC’s River Club within a few years of this, too… by which time it seemed nice but hardly groundbreaking.
Those that I mention add up to less than half of the total (and several of those, failed concepts despite the talent involved).
In 1990, there were 27 choices from 15 locations—no city getting more than three selections (most likely an editorial dictum). Here, Emeril’s eponymous eatery is declared Restaurant of the Year (a position not offered in ’88), and shout outs go to Louis Osteen in Charleston, Rick Bayless in Chicago (“Topolobampo is a restaurant that should change forever the way you look at and appreciate Mexican food in this country.”—good call), Robert Del Grande (“One of the most important chefs in America.”), Michel Richard (for SantaMonica’s Broadway Deli!), Wolfgang Puck, Bradley Ogden and Drew Nieporent’s Tribeca Grill.
That’s eight out of 27—and in most of these cases, not even first concepts by the chefs (On this list, I only visited Broadway Deli within a few years, and never experienced any great distinction.)—in other words, safe calls. Yes, these ranks include legends and hit concepts, but a greater number of quick flashes that were equally praised.
What does it all mean? That Mariani’s methods might have been bettered by throwing darts at a board? That fate is fickle and greatness is too often overlooked? Neither, necessarily (although the task ought to have been less daunting in those pre-Yelp/Top Chef days). More likely, that it’s just an absurd task for one person to whittle down such an enormous selection without being utterly humbled. For one person to pick a city’s best restaurants is Herculean. Fifty states? Small wonder Michelin hasn’t even deigned to take on the whole country.
For the winners, of course, it is an accolade worthy of promotion. But is it, in the end, anything greater than one man's opinion?