The review, by Pete Wells, is interesting on so many levels. The transition from cafe society to a foodie society, the ability to review Chock full of Nuts and La Cote Basque in the same column, etc. I suspect Mr Claiborne would be delighted with many of the things we take for granted, more than a decade after his death.
I was pleased to see the mention of Lucius Beebe. He's a wonderful example of the cafe society which was passing away as Claiborne arrived.
What is most striking, though, are the head-snapping juxtapositions of linen and linoleum. In one column, Claiborne recommended both a Neapolitan pizzeria and the Colony, the hive of society where Sirio Maccioni studied the art of seating arrangements. In another, Claiborne praised the kitchen at La Côte Basque but had more to say about the food at Chock Full o’ Nuts: “There are more than 30 of these first-class establishments in New York. They are neat as a whistle and the sandwiches and pastries are of a high order.”
Readers who questioned whether Claiborne really put such different genres of dining on an equal footing would learn the answer the day he began handing out stars.
In a basement near Battery Park, Jimmy’s Greek American Restaurant prepared moussaka and braised lamb for lunch customers who served themselves by walking right into the kitchen. Claiborne gave the place two stars.
Claiborne’s reviews were just one part of that model. He wrote about changing tastes in the White House kitchen, stood by the stove with home cooks who showed him how to prepare tortillas, and reported on the rise of nouvelle cuisine in France. He traveled, most famously to Paris for a $4,000 dinner that he wrote up on the front page, but to more far-flung locales, too.
“I think people were sort of astonished when he did things like he went to Vietnam during the war and sat there within the sound of gunfire, and discovered things like shrimp on a stick,” said Mr. McNamee, Claiborne’s biographer. “He was able to go to Alaska and eat blubber and moose liver and write about it in this strange trance. He seems to take everything in stride. I think this sort of nervelessness helped him bring people around to just trying anything.”
If every meal could be critiqued, even a doughnut at the counter of Chock Full o’ Nuts, then everybody could be a critic. Followed far enough, this road leads to Yelp. But it also leads to thousands of Americans treating each meal not as mere nourishment, and not as a reinforcement of social status, but as a chance to taste something new and wonderful.
Influential as he became, Claiborne seemed not to enjoy his power, or much else about the job. “At times I didn’t give a damn if all the restaurants in Manhattan were shoved into the East River and perished,” he wrote in his memoir. “Toward the end of my days as restaurant critic, I found myself increasingly indulging in drink, the better to endure another evening of dining out.”