“Given the rate at which Michael White’s Altamarea Group spits out restaurants these days, this column has adopted a new policy. The amount of time spent critiquing each Altamarea place will be proportional to the time Altamarea spent coming up with the idea. This review of Ristorante Morini, open since December, will be brief.”
Pete Wells, in his two-star review of Morini for The New York Times.
“I could go on against tipping, but let’s leave it at this: it is irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory. The people who take care of us in restaurants deserve a better system, and so do we.”

So says NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells in his fine essay against tipping, a ridiculous American practice where guests are expected to “voluntarily” add 18-20% to any restaurant bill to compensate waiters for their services. 

The Bad Deal has long argued that mandatory service-charges or European-style service-included pricing are fairer than tipping for both diners and wait staff. Earlier this year, we broke the news that Sushi Yasuda had eliminated tipping. We also published an interview with Manresa’s David Kinch arguing that tipping is the last major hurdle holding back dining in America. You know it: It’s time for tipping to go. 

“While the service can be among the best in the city…it is not always that way for everyone. When people who are known at the restaurant tell me about their meals, they look blissful. Others look disappointed or resentful as they tell me about cramped tables in the neoclassical arcades around the grand sunken dining room and hasty, perfunctory service.”
Pete Wells downgrades Daniel from FOUR STARS to THREE STARS in his review for The New York Times. Do click through for the full read, as it includes a brilliant play-by-play account of his VIP treatment versus the every-man treatment of a colleague at another table, who orders the same six-course menu ($195) and encounters very different service.  
“The only time the room feels small is when you are attempting to book one of the 28 seats, but even that is a fairly painless process thanks to a widget on Chez Sardine’s Web site that lists open time slots rather than making you guess. (I hope the technology catches on.)”
Hey OpenTable, Pete Wells is talking about you! He’s criticizing those reservation time GUESSING GAMES you make us play. End the madness and just tell us when there are available seats, OpenTable! 
“I was fascinated to learn, for example, that 29 recently opened places are in the running for the Best New Restaurant award, but that only one of them, Empellón Cocina, is in New York City…New York may be over-represented among the winners each year, but it is under-represented among the semifinalists. It’s almost as if the committee is trying to handicap New York on the initial ballot to compensate for the advantage the city has in the final outcome. And as a result, the Beard Awards are ignoring some of the best, most original and creative restaurants in the country — places that would be on the to-do list of chefs visiting the United States from France or Japan.”

Pete Wells of The New York Times publishes an insightful critique of the James Beard Award semifinalists. Here’s what’s also curious: That Jewel Bako is one of two New York spots running for “best restaurant.”

There are many good sushi spots in Manhattan, and while Jewel Bako is surely one of the better of the bunch, it’s not a name that’s regularly mentioned in the same breath as 15 East, Sushi of Gari or Ushiwakamaru (at least in my entourage). Furthermore, it’s surely not a restaurant that’s deemed by anyone as among New York’s best restaurants. Thoughts?  

Should Waiters Get a Higher Minimum Wage?4

Following President Obama’s call in the State of the Union to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, Pete Wells of the New York Times sparked a lively Twitter discussion among members of the food world about the welfare of restaurant workers. Commenting in this fine NYT Twitter roundup are Tom Collichio, Grant Achatz, Nortnern Spy, Ryan Sutton (that’s me!), and others. 

Now here’s the thing: The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour, Wells correctly reports, while $7.25 is the current the non-tipped minimum wage. Making up that difference depends not just on the generosity of the dining public, but how much you, as a waiter, are required to kick back to your bussers, backwaiters and bartenders. 

We at The Bad Deal are big fans of Per Se-style “service included” pricing, which ensures waiters earn a stable wage, and which also lets kitchen staffers earn a bit more too (that’s a big deal at fancy joints where wait captains make bank while line-cooks come home with much less). Then again, service-included pricing is a touchy issue in America, where many diners (incorrectly) think they deserve to control how much a waiter earns based on his or her “performance” that evening.

So, should waiters get a higher minimum wage? Feel free to chime in below. 

Pete Wells on Why Restaurants Can Be More Important Than Post Offices4


New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells makes a profound point about the importance of restaurants and fundraising in our post-Hurricane Sandy New York. Here’s what he has to say: 

  • A good restaurant can be more important to its neighborhood than the post office. I suspect that’s why so many people have been donating to the many fund-raising sites set up by flooded restaurants. I can’t think of many for-profit businesses that people would pay to subsidize without getting a direct return on their investment. But if the place where families go to celebrate birthdays just disappears one day, it can leave a big hole in the community.” 

What Wells is saying reminds me of the way society, particularly the wealthy, subsidizes artists. Whether through foundation-supported grants, or direct gifts from high-net worth individuals, artists depend on our support to do what they do. And I’m not just talking about buying their paintings or photos; I also mean simply giving them money, without the expectation of something immediate or tangible in return, because we know that doing so will let the artist continue his or her lifestyle, and hopefully make our world a better place. 

Sometimes, members of the culinary cognoscenti tend to think of restaurants in very transactional terms; just look at my blog, The Price Hike, dedicated to tracking the minute (and sometimes not-so-minute) price changes at restaurants across the U.S. You really don’t get more transactional than that, and I’m okay with that, because, well, that’s what I do, and we only have so much money to spend! 

But the reason this quote by Mr. Wells strikes a cord with me is because he’s encouraging us to contemplate the joy of restaurants in terms that transcend “I pay $58 for a steak and I get twenty-two ounces of USDA Prime in return,” or even, “I’m donating $500 to this GoFundMe account and hopefully the restaurant will give me a signed cookbook as a present.”

This quote is about restaurants not just as businesses but as community centers, places that make us happy for reasons we can’t necessarily put a finger on, and sometimes it’s hard to put a quantifiable price on that.  

Should We Be Allowed to Watch `Game of Thrones’ at Ambitious Restaurants Like Momofuku Ssam Bar or Marea?

Something interesting happened this week in the world of culinary journalism; New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells didn’t critique a restaurant. Instead, he used his column space to advise diners to eat downtown, penning a fine love letter to those “temporarily shuttered” by superstorm Sandy.

This critic, in turn, took a somewhat analogous course, forgoing a review to advise restaurants on what they could do to better serve diners in preparation for the next natural disaster. 

One of my chief suggestions raised a few eyebrows: More good restaurants need televisions, especially when the power’s out. Conventional wisdom, of course, is just the opposite. Here’s what Sam Sifton had to say about the matter early last year when he was still the NYT food critic:  

  • "You know why your favorite restaurants don’t have a television on where you can watch the game? Because restaurants that make it onto lists like yours don’t generally have televisions on where you can watch the game. That’s not a Zen koan, either. It’s part of the Manhattan social contract, the same sort of understanding that keeps polka off the speakers at sushi bars and fluorescent lights out of bistros. Televisions don’t belong in good restaurants."

All fair points. I like to think that social contract is voided once the lights go off in half the city. I don’t go to the library, to town square, or to the local barbershop when things go dark. Rather, I go out to eat. And when the lights come back on, I go out to eat again. Restaurants, for many of us urban dwellers, are the centers of our communities. They’re our surrogate kitchens, civilized extensions of our living rooms. 

So when the lights go off, I wish I could watch the latest edition of “60 Minutes” in the bar area at Empellon Cocina, Mission Chinese, The Brooklyn Star, Marea, or even Frankies 457.

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Bad Deal Rule No. 91: It’s Supremely Uncool When an Expensive Restaurant Bounces You to Voicemail During Business Hours

Pete Wells of The New York Times had a pretty great time eating at Blanca, the $180 tasting menu-only restaurant in Bushwick. But he had some difficulties with the reservations process. He writes

  • “I secured one reservation simply by phoning on the first day of the month, when Blanca opens and then closes its reservation book for the coming weeks. That tactic never worked again. On Oct. 1, I placed nearly 40 calls to the restaurant. They all bounced straight to voice mail, giving me some time to wonder whether there is any point in writing about a 12-seat restaurant that serves 60 people a week. If I have trouble getting in the door three times to do my job, how many readers will manage it even once?”

I had similar issues with Blanca reservations as well, though I’ll discuss that further when I file my Bloomberg News review sometime before Christmas. 

In the meantime, allow me to make a suggestion: Tiny spots like Blanca and Brooklyn Fare should switch to electronic-only reservations. It worked for Momofuku Ko, Alinea, Next, Seiobo, Shoto, The NoMad Rooftop, and other pricey restaurants with limited space. With online bookings, there’s never any busy signal, never any straight-to-voicemail. With online resies, you get an immediate answer. It takes three minutes out of your day, instead of three hundred redials over an hour.

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