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$25 and Over

For many years, the New York Times has employed two restaurant critics, the only paper in town to do so. The main critic reviews the “high-end,” and another critic writes a column called “$25 and Under.” Just how the Times defines a $25 meal is unclear, but it seems to include only the entrées. For instance, in April Eric Asimov reviewed August, a Greenwich Village newcomer with entrées ranging from $16-24. Clearly, you’re not getting out of there for under $25, unless you drink sodas, skip dessert, and order from the bottom end of the menu. Indeed, my own solo meal at August ran to about $75 all-in, which included three courses and two drinks. I did not order the most expensive things, by any means. The definition of a meal’s cost on Zagat’s website is far more sensible, and consistent with the way other guides define it: “The cost column reflects the estimated price of a dinner with one drink and tip.”

Part of the Times’s problem is that the “$25 and Under” label has been unchanged since the 1980s. At one time, you probably could have eaten at these places for under $25. Asimov admitted to the New York Observer recently that the label is no longer strictly true:

Twelve years ago, The New York Times launched “$25 and Under,” a weekly column cataloging good (or at least decent) restaurants for cheap. A spokesperson for The Times declined to comment on whether the paper would consider changing the column to reflect today’s elevated prices.

On April 14, 2004, its writer, Eric Asimov, reviewed the meatpacking district’s Barbuto: “Best of all,” Mr. Asimov wrote, “the main courses are under $20 and almost all appetizers are under $10, providing a rare opportunity to try a celebrity chef’s work without celebrity prices.” Err, just what is our definition of “celebrity prices” these days?

Recently, Mr. Asimov hit Shore in Tribeca, which boasts a $29 steak, and La Nacional on 14th Street, with a $15-per-person paella and “tiny lamb chops,” also for $15.”It wouldn’t be incorrect to say the literal meaning of ‘$25 and Under’ doesn’t always apply anymore,” Mr. Asimov said. “It just so happens that in Manhattan, the neighborhood restaurant has greatly increased in price. In the 1990’s, when the economy was cruising along, all these neighborhood restaurants started serving foie gras.”

The fault lines were even more brutally exposed with this week’s pair of NYC reviews. The main critic, Frank Bruni, reviewed Ici (246 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn), where entrées are $12-17. In inflation-adjusted terms, it might be the most inexpensive restaurant ever to earn one star. It was also a rare venture outside Manhattan by the main critic. In the “$25 and Under” column, Matt and Ted Lee reviewed Maia (98 Avenue B), where entrées are $12-21. Thus, the so-called “$25 and Under” restaurant, which was ineligible for a star under the Times system, was actually more expensive than the restaurant the main critic covered this week. Whether the brothers Lee would have awarded Maia a star had they been allowed to is somewhat beside the point. There is no doubt in my mind that August warranted a star [it subsequently received two].

It must be pointed out that the “$25 and Under” critic sometimes reviews obscure, hole-in-the-wall places that are no more than an over-achieving sandwich shops or taco stands. To award these places a star would stretch the Times rating system beyond what it will bear. There’s a certain minimum expectation of service and pampering that one expects even at the low end of the star scale. A sandwich joint, no matter how good, just doesn’t deserve one star. But increasingly, the $25 and Under” column overlaps the main reviewer’s territory. Yet, these restaurants can’t have a star – and the cachet that goes with it.

This isn’t the only oddity in the Times’s reviewing system. The main critic actually writes two reviews a week: the main review on Wednesdays, and a shorter column called “Diner’s Journal” on Fridays. Restaurants covered in the Diner’s Journal are never eligible for stars, but sometimes the critic comes back and grants those restaurants a full review soon afterwards. A recent example was V Steakhouse in the Time Warner mall, which was the subject of a Diner’s Journal column on June 18th, and then a full one-star review on July 14th. The full review made essentially the same points as the Diner’s Journal column less than a month earlier. Had the restaurant been inclined to take any of Bruni’s points to heart (and I don’t know that they were), a month was clearly not enough time for them to do so.

The upshot is that the Times has three columns a week that walk, talk, and squalk like reviews, but only one of which awards the coveted stars. On eGullet, one writer thought that the two reviewing positions fall between two stools:

As it is right now, we have a “highbrow plus a little middlebrow” reviewer and a “lowbrow plus a little middlebrow” reviewer. In both cases, the reviewers are delving into somewhat inappropriate territory when they reach into the middle. Also, every time a middlebrow neighborhood place is reviewed by the high end guy, we’re missing out on a potential review or re-review of a haute place. Likwise, we’re missing out on a potential review or re-review of a cheap eats place every time the <$25 guys review a middlebrow neighborhood restaurant. There is also somewhat of an inequity as to which middlebrow restaurants are reviewed by which reviewer. There is no denying the fact that a review by the high end guy, even if some faults are mentioned, is more prestigious and beneficial to the restaurant than a glowing review by the <$25 guy. The inevitable result is that quality middlebrow neighborhood places are underrepresented with reviews. What we’re left with is a situation where certain middlebrow places are raised above their peers with a big review (e.g., Ici), others are given a <$25 review that doesn’t devote the kind and depth of scrutiny they deserve (e.g., Franny’s), and most of them are simply never reviewed (e.g., @SQC). I’d like to see a system whereby all thee of these places would have an informed, well-written review that was made by a reviewer who was familiar with middle-level dining, and that could be viewed against the history of other such reviews. This is a particular shame considering that middlebrow dining is one of the largest segments of NY dining.

Having said all that, I don’t see the slightest bit of evidence that the Times has any interest in fundamentally rethinking its system. But if they do, there’s certainly plenty to think about.

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