Guy Fieri’s Not the First: Restaurant Critic Pete Wells’ Most Scathing Reviews

Wells has an axe to grind, and he has no shame in sharpening it right against the cleavers of some of New York’s most storied chefs.

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Theo Wargo / WireImage
Theo Wargo / WireImage

Guy Fieri attends the 2012 Lollapalooza at Grant Park on August 4, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois.

Let’s face it: Guy Fieri had it coming. His new Times Square venture was unceremoniously skewered, butchered and charred beyond recognition by restaurant critic Pete Wells in an awe-inspiring New York Times article that has ricocheted around the internet faster than a minute steak. Having not tried Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar ourselves, we can’t vouchsafe Wells’ scathing review, but something strikes us as a bit overcooked.

Wells succeeded Sam Sifton in November 2011 as the Gray Lady’s restaurant reviewer, picking up a fork once wielded by such culinary luminaries as Frank Bruni and Ruth Reichl. But he hasn’t always dished out such frigid reviews; in fact, he was initially heralded as a “softie” by the New York Observer, who cited the kind-hearted stats of his first six months on the job as being more generous than his recent predecessors. Since then, though, a gruffer New York attitude has emerged. Wells has even been dubbed “Pete the Punisher” by the New York food blog Eater. And he has taken his pitchfork and mace to some of the city’s most lauded institutions, including Le Cirque.

Wells has an axe to grind, and he has no shame in using it to filet some of New York’s most storied chefs. In fact, the beatdown Fieri received today puts him in some extremely haute company. Here are a few of Wells’ most famous takedowns.

Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar:
It’s the review that earned the glee and admiration of Twitter, as Wells’ ire was so palpable.

“Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”

Le Cirque:
Often ranked among the best restaurants in the world, Le Cirque has been a New York institution for four decades. Daniel Boulud served as executive chef for six years, and the eatery has received rave reviews including a three-star New York Times review in 2008. But in September 2012, Wells knocked off two-thirds of those stars.

“Beef carpaccio, the chilly maroon flesh stretched out below a scattershot application of radish and celery slices that had started to curl, tasted of refrigeration and surrender. In what was meant to be a salad, a white flap of flavorless squid was pulled over a length of octopus leg like a shroud; it sat next to frigid white beans that were crunchy at the center.”

Eleven Madison Park:
Wells didn’t take issue with the food at the newly lauded Daniel Humm joint, which serves a supremely curated prix-fixe menu. Instead, in September 2012, he railed against the servers’ need to explain each course to diners:

“The narrative tone isn’t sharp, it isn’t quick, it isn’t wised up, and it assumes the listener knows nothing: in other words, it’s not a New York voice. By the end of the four hours, I felt as if I’d gone to a Seder hosted by Presbyterians.”

Romera New York:
Wells’ January 2012 review of the now-defunct restaurant at the Dream Downtown hotel criticized the chef’s yearning for admiration over culinary appeal.

“…To eat at Romera New York is to be told repeatedly that you are in the presence of greatness, while the evidence of your senses tells you that you are in the presence of, at best, okayness.”

Nicoletta:
Wells charred this East Village pizza joint in August 2012 for its “gut-stretching” crusts.

“Mr. White has said he engineered the dough to stand up to the rigors of delivery and reheating with no loss of quality. In that, at least, he has succeeded. Warmed up a day or two later, a Nicoletta crust is just as stiff and bland as when it was fresh from the oven.”

Shake Shack:
Making a point to self-shame for reviewing a burger joint, Wells remarked in February 2012 about his inconsistent experiences at New York City’s hippest casual dining chain.

“More often, though, the meat was cooked to the color of wet newsprint, inside and out, and salted so meekly that eating it was as satisfying as hearing a friend talk about a burger his cousin ate.”

Hakkasan:
Wells reviewed the Oriental-inspired Times Square eatery in June 2012 and enjoyed the food overall, despite noting dishes “only occasionally [rose] above the ordinary.” The bill had no trouble, though.

“Nothing I tasted at Hakkasan was unpleasant, but when the check easily surpassed $100 a person, it was hard not to feel cheated. It was like buying scalped tickets to see Anna Netrebko at the Met and then finding out that she would be performing the Katy Perry songbook.”