Phantom Diner

Phantom Diner Interviews New York Times Critic – January 2011

Written by The Phantom Diner | Dec 20, 2010 6:31 PM

And now for something completely different...

This month your Phantom offers an unusual treat. He/she used his/her vast connections to do a fun Q&A with the chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, Sam Sifton.

By way of intro, Sam is a born-and-raised New Yorker who has lived in Brooklyn all his life. He's been a cultural and dining editor at the Times. In August 2009 he was named to succeed Frank Bruni as top critic. He's 44 and a magna cum laude Harvard grad.

Phantom: So how'd you land this gig?

: I was a restaurant critic at my first newspaper, the New York Press, a free weekly here in the city at the start of the 1990s. Rose there to become managing editor and came to the Times after a three-year stint at Talk Magazine. Worked on the Times Dining desk as a deputy and then as the editor, moved to Arts in 2005 and became the culture editor of the newspaper. Then a little more than a year ago, when Frank Bruni stepped down, Bill Keller [the executive editor] asked me to do this job. I thought about it for a weekend and then said what anybody would say: Yes!

What's the best/worst part of your job?

The best part is eating out in some of the best restaurants in the world, and writing about them for the Times. The worst part is eating out in bad restaurants. Right in the middle of this is the fact that whether they're good or bad, I have to eat in restaurants almost every night of the week, every week of the year.

Do restaurant folks know who you are when you review them; do you tell them you're coming?

I endeavor to eat anonymously. I make reservations under a fake name. I pay with cash or credit cards that don't have my name on them, or the name of the newspaper. Sometimes I'm recognized. It was hard to scrub the Internet entirely of photos of me. Two remain, floating around for people to print and put up on the walls of New York restaurant kitchens sort of like a "Wanted" poster. Sometimes I am not recognized. Sometimes I disguise myself. It's like Spy vs. Spy.

What's the Times star deal? How many? What's the least/most you've given and to whom?

The Times awards zero to four stars roughly like this: Poor (0), Satisfactory (0), Good (1), Very Good (2), Excellent (3), Exceptional (4). I've given many no-star reviews but only one four-star so far, Del Posto, an Italian restaurant in Chelsea.

[Phan note: It's a Mario Batali/Bastianich place; don't even think about getting a reservation any sooner than a month out.]

What are your three favorite restaurants?

I used to love answering that question. Now I never do because it gets in the way of my job. But I'm always dreaming of a place that serves wickedly hot, very well-done chicken wings and Budweiser so cold that it has flecks of ice in it. Those two things are so easy for most people to find. In my job, you can hardly ever find them.

Is there any type of food you don't like?

There is no type of food I dislike. That's one of the reasons I'm a good person to review restaurants.

Have you gained weight since starting this gig? If not, why not?

I have not gained weight. I am, in fact, in better shape than at any point since I graduated from high school. I run four to five times a week and work out in a gym three times a week, ride a bike to work, walk a lot. There is no other way to do the job, in my opinion. I want to be hungry when I go to a restaurant. I want to be excited to eat. The only way to do that is to burn calories, keep in shape.

Do you eat at a place multiple times before a review? Do you dine alone or mostly with others?

I eat at a restaurant somewhere between three [and] five times before writing about it. I rarely dine alone. Usually, I dine in a group of four, though I sometimes go with just one other person. Sometimes I go with six. I assemble differently sized parties for different restaurants, for different parts of different restaurants.

What are your top pet peeves about restaurants and/or servers?

I do not like to be told that the table cannot be seated until the party is entirely complete. I don't like the use of the first-person plural to discuss what "we're" feeling about anything at the table. And I don't like being sold water when I live in a city that has such incredible water as New York.

Are restaurant "specials" always best to order?

No! Specials can be great, of course, and often are. But they are also sometimes what needs to be sold tonight before it goes bad in the refrigerator. Good rule of thumb: Don't order the fish special on Sunday night.

So there you have it. You can read Sam's reviews in the New York Times Dining section every Wednesday, and look for his food/restaurant feature pieces that occasionally appear on other days and in other sections.

Published in Phantom Diner

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