THE ORIGINAL INFLUENCERS
By Chip Klose
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF TASTE
The first “real restaurant” is considered to have been La Grande Taverne de Londres in Paris, founded by a pioneering, young restauranteur named Antoine Beauviliers in the 1780’s. We know this primarily from the personal account of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a man regarded by many to be the father of modern food writing.
He recorded: “La Grande Taverne de Londres is the first establishment to combine the four essentials: an elegant room, smart waiters, a choice cellar, and superior cooking.”
Not one, but two industries born.
And Gotham, now celebrating its 35th Anniversary, can certainly attest to the indelible connection between restaurants and critics. Brillat-Savarin’s masterwork, The Physiology of Taste, was published in 1825, just two months before his untimely death. It continues to live on in ways he could have never foreseen.
Paris was a gastronomic oasis back then — the only real destination for serious dining — but it now competes with dozens of other cities for culinary bragging rights. Think of the innovation happening in places like San Sebastien, Modena, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Melbourne, Hong Kong, San Francisco, LA, Chicago, and New York.
No one alive in the eighteenth century could have imagined the ways in which food culture would explode. In the nearly two hundred years since the publication of The Physiology of Taste, Food Writing (and surely we must now capitalize those words) has taken on a life of its own.
The publishing industry has entire imprints dedicated to the genre. Hundreds of new cookbooks hit the shelves each year, to say nothing of the countless number of non-fiction releases by some of America’s greatest Food Writers and Journalists.
Though mainstream daily publications are cutting back their coverage of restaurants, we’re now seeing a whole crop of new media outlets committed to exploring the culinary world. Websites, YouTube Channels, Blogs, Social Media Accounts, TV Shows, and Podcasts are all redefining how and where serious conversations about food are happening.
What would Brillat-Savarin have thought of an outlet like Eater? How about the Netflix original series, Chef’s Table? Can you imagine what his Instagram handle might have been? Would he have his own Podcast?
LONGEVITY IS A RARE THING THESE DAYS
For three plus decades Gotham has been a cornerstone of the New York dining scene, featured extensively in food publications, travel magazines, daily papers, and blogs. What’s more, we’ve been the recipient of an unprecedented five 3-star reviews in the New York Times, spanning all the way back to 1985 when Bryan Miller first bestowed that honor upon us.
Our longevity certainly has something to do with the accolades and attention those reviews brought us. And so this spring, we thought it apropos to share the stage with some of the notable Food Writers who have helped shape Gotham’s legacy.
The year was 1983. Jerry Kretchmer had just found the 12th Street location and believed the grand space would be perfect for a restaurant. He envisioned an open, inviting eatery for New Yorkers of all stripes. The restaurant was an immediate sensation but quickly found itself in trouble. In 1985, Jerry brought in a young chef to turn things around. Alfred Portale reimagined the menu, but by then much of the press had already moved on. They’d tried the food, logged their criticisms, and closed the book on the restaurant.
It wasn’t until months later when Gael Greene, “The Insatiable Critic,” noted the change in leadership and decided to make a return visit. Her official review appeared in New York Magazine on June 24th, in a column that touted the arrival of two new powerhouses. The first part of her review was a write-up of Drew Nieporent’s Montrachet; the second was a love letter to Gotham Bar and Grill. It didn’t take long for the other critics to circle back.
In October of that same year, Bryan Miller, then Chief Restaurant Critic for the New York Times, punched his report — a rave 3-star review. And the rest, as they say, is history.
No one realized it then, but it would be a watershed year for the industry. Gotham — the first restaurant of its kind to be honored with 3-stars — ushered in a new era in American dining. Jonathan Waxman had just arrived from California, and Larry Forgione was making the move from River Cafe to An American Place. Danny Meyer would open Union Square Cafe later that year, and in early 1986 Charlie Palmer would open his Upper East Side gem, Aureole.
As the years went by, Gotham would be reviewed several more times. Bryan Miller would return in 1989, Molly O’Neill in 1993. Both would reaffirm the Times’ original 3-star determination, pointing out how the restaurant was settling in nicely. Jerry’s original vision of a downtown American brasserie had finally been realized.
Then in 1993 the New York dining scene felt a seismic shift as the New York Times brought in Ruth Reichl from Los Angeles, naming her to the post of Chief Restaurant Critic. From 1993 to 1999, Reichl would wield her pen with great force, able to make or break a restaurant in just a few paragraphs.
In 1996, she would return to Gotham — often dining incognito, for which she was famous — to see firsthand how Gotham had aged. On February 23, 1996 she would log the restaurant’s penultimate review, noting the excellent food, gracious service, and dramatic surroundings, finishing with perhaps her most astute observation: “Romantic meals are rare special events, but Gotham is good for every ordinary occasion.”
Hers would be the final word on Gotham for some fifteen years before Sam Sifton put it on his hit list.
Having spent years as editor of the Dining section, Sifton was well versed with the landscape of the New York dining scene. Surely he knew that a return to Gotham would not go unnoticed.
The year was 2011 and in the years since Reichl’s review, dining in the city had become both more elevated and more casual. Prominent openings in the 2000’s included Blue Hill, Per Se, and The Modern; notable closings were Lutece, Lespinasse, and Alain Ducasse’s flagship at the famed Essex House.
French was out; American was very much in. Farm-to-table was all the rage, and “foodies” had finally invented a name for themselves.
Casual brands like Momofuku were inviting diners to reconsider how and where great meals could be enjoyed. Food criticism was no longer reserved for an exclusive crop of established journalists. Yelp and TripAdvisor were reinventing how people searched for their next great meal.
Sifton delivered yet another 3-star review for the Times, reinvigorating business at the restaurant for years to come. But the winds of change were already being felt. Within a year’s time Facebook would buy Instagram for a reported $1 Billion, marking the biggest shift in food culture since perhaps the publication of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste.
THE SOCIAL ELEMENT
Restaurant Criticism seems to be a dying art, and not because the writers aren’t worthy. It’s because food culture has become more visual. The New York Times, still one of the few publications with a full-time food critic (Pete Wells), has turned much of their attention to the “Cooking Section”, an extraordinary online recipe library — the kind of resource home cooks and ambitious gourmands have long pined for.
YouTube Chefs now get their own cookbooks, and Influencers are the real trendsetters when it comes to dining. In fact, these days everyone with an iPhone is a critic, capable of reaching a (sometimes large) captive audience. Attention, as they say, has become the real currency. And if a picture’s worth a thousand words, why bother taking the time to read?
The democratization of food culture has been an exciting trend to watch, but we should all remember where it started. From Brillat-Savarin to MFK Fisher, Calvin Trillin to Adam Gopnik, Mark Bittman to Michael Pollan… and the long list of critics who have helped shape the New York dining scene over the past four decades.
Gotham continues to evolve and innovate, but for the month of April we invite you to look back with us. Savor the delicious writing of some of New York’s greatest food writers. Thank them, as we do, for capturing — and communicating — what it means to dine here at Gotham.
We’ll be celebrating all next month and invite you to join us for the festivities!
Cheers to 35 extraordinary years!
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Four Weeks, Four Menus
Seating is extremely limited.
Each week will feature a different
Four-Course Set Menu for $84.
Reserve your table by clicking the links below!