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Review Recap: Nello a Nullity

Alert the media. Today, Sam Sifton files on Nello, finding (shock!) that it’s utterly irrelevant. In case you were wondering:

Nello, which opened in 1992, is an ecosystem that is almost incomprehensible to those not a part of it. The food is not very good. Yet the restaurant’s customer base is built of the richest and most coddled people in the city, who love it for its elegance and, perhaps, simplicity.

It is a private club of sorts, where the dues are paid nightly. The meetings are unadvertised. Nello’s dining room can be crowded at 3 p.m. or midnight. It can also be empty at 1 p.m. or 9 p.m. Regular patrons respond to whistles mere customers cannot hear.

As Ben Leventhal put it on Twitter, “So far the new guy needs work picking his wild cards.”

The slack pace of new openings—the comparative lack of places that require reviews—has given Sifton the chance to write about restaurants that ordinarily wouldn’t get much attention. So far, he is squandering the opportunity.

There’s a place, occasionally, to write about over-priced tourist traps like Nello, if only to call attention to how bad they are. There’s also a place, occasionally, to write about good neighborhood standbys that deserve a shout-out: Strip House and Novitá were examples.

But these are places are static: they execute classics, with varying degrees of competence. They aren’t “part of the conversation.” If the culinary moment is the product of a million little decisions made in restaurants all over town, they aren’t contributing to it. Neither is Sifton.

Frank Bruni has plenty of faults, but you’ve got to give him credit for one thing: he was always trying to find something new. Arguably, he had too little respect for classics done well. His five-year tenure was a mid-life crisis worked out before our eyes.

Sifton just doesn’t seem to care. He reviews the new openings, as he must, then spends the rest of his time at restaurants no one is talking about.

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