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Food Network star Guy Fieri just opened a new restaurant in Times Square. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells isn't a fan, so why did he eat there in the first place? (AP)

If The Pretzel Chicken Isn't Awesome, Why Review It?

Nov 17, 2012 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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In a week in which the news has been filled with a fiscal cliff, rockets, sex and security, a restaurant review also raised a ruckus.

Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of The New York Times, reviewed the new restaurant Guy Fieri has opened in Times Square with a string of rhetorical questions that began by asking Mr. Fieri if he's ever eaten at his own place.

"Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are?" asks Mr. Wells. "Did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste?"

Let me step in right here — the way a boxing ref might when a fighter on the ropes is about to be clubbed — to ask: Did the critic order a blue drink just to make fun of it? Did he think the taste would be subtle and complex?

Margaret Sullivan, the Time's public editor, called Pete Wells' review "a masterpiece of scorn ... very mean and very funny and completely within the purview of the restaurant critic."

Guy Fieri hosts a Food Network show called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives in which he drives a Chevy convertible across the country to gorge himself in a succession of genuine, no-star, family-favorite neighborhood spots. Pete Wells wondered if Mr. Fieri's new restaurant is some kind of barely culinary scheme to cash in on the authenticity of others.

"Is it all an act?" he asks. "Is that why the kind of cooking you celebrate on television is treated with so little respect at Guy's American Kitchen & Bar?"

I've often enjoyed Pete Wells' writing. He's complained that so-called tasting menus can leave you feeling like you've been strapped to a table at a Coney Island eating contest, and wrote a beautiful column recently about low-end downtown restaurants closed during recent storms that could use business now.

But in these days when anyone can be a critic online, why is a New York Times critic reviewing the kind of place that people who read restaurant reviews probably wouldn't go to for a bowl of hot soup if it was the only spot open during Hurricane Sandy?

Does a New York Times drama critic review Macy's Santa Clauses just to observe, "They repeat the same tired old 'Ho-ho-ho's' with rote warmth?"

Why doesn't a critic hop the subway and find some unheralded spot in Queens or Staten Island that's worth the attention?

I asked Pete Wells: When you could tell that the food was so bad, why didn't you just leave?

"I'm struggling to come up with an interesting answer to your question," he quickly wrote back. "I get paid to eat bad food."

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