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Whither "$25 & Under"?

Last Friday, Eater.com broke the story that Peter Meehan had resigned as the “$25 & Under” dining critic at The New York Times. Meehan’s editor, Pete Wells, confirmed the story on Grub Street, and today Meehan speaks up on Eater.com—dubbed an “exit interview.”

Eric Asimov founded the “$25 & Under” column in 1992. As conceived at the time, the column was supposed to highlight “restaurants where people can eat lavishly for $25 and under. For that price, you should be able to get a complete meal: appetizer, main course, and dessert. Beverages, tax, and tip are not included in the calculation.”

Like the Alternative Minimum Tax, the column name wasn’t indexed for inflation. Asimov kept reviewing the kinds of restaurants he’d always reviewed, but by 2004 (his final year), the name wasn’t literally true any more. As Asimov recounted in an eGullet Q&A, “Let’s be honest about the $25 cutoff. It made literal sense in 1992. Nowadays it communicates generally that this restaurant is going to be cheaper than the other restaurant on the page, and that it’s going to be a good value.”

When William Grimes stepped aside as chief restaurant critic, Asimov could have had the job if he’d wanted it. Instead, Asimov chose the cushier job of chief wine critic, Frank Bruni took over as the main restaurant critic, and the “$25 & Under” job went to the then-unknown Peter Meehan.

The paper had apparently decided to restore truth to the “$25 & Under” label. Meehan did as he was told, but the column became increasingly irrelevant, as he struggled to find newsworthy restaurants where you could have a $25 meal worth writing about. Bruni, in the meantime, “stretched” the traditional star system to encompass everything from Per Se to Katz’s Deli.

My view? Asimov had it right. Rename the column “$40 & Under.” Doing so would give Frank Bruni more bandwidth to cover the traditional territory of “starred restaurants,” and would restore to the former Asimov column the luster it used to have.

My reasoning? The Times is a national paper first, a metro paper second, and a neighborhood paper third. Anyplace the Times reviews needs to be a “destination” in some sense. The $25 ceiling forces the critic into reviewing obscure outer-borough destinations that most readers don’t care about. The paper will never have the bandwidth to do justice to tavernas in Queens or taco stands in the Bronx. Websites like Chowhound.com cover that ground more effectively than the Times ever can.

I am not trying to make the Times any more elitist than it already is. I know there are some people who adore these humble neighborhood joints. But I am trying to be realistic about what the paper’s dining section can realistically achieve. Editor Pete Wells seems to have realized this, when he dialed back “$25 & Under” to bi-weekly, replacing it with “Dining Briefs,” a column that provides shorter snapshots of two or three restaurants at a time.

If Times management is unwilling to lift the “$25 & Under” ceiling to a level that would restore the column to its original purpose, then they should just kill the column altogether, and run “Dining Briefs” every week.

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