Remembering Mimi Sheraton, Innovative New York Times Food Critic

In the course of researching that previous item, wherein then-NYT restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton accompanied Colonel Sanders to a Manhattan KFC in 1976, I learned that she died just a few months ago, at age 97. Truly a groundbreaking career:

An adventurer with a passion for offbeat experiences, an eclectic taste for foods and the independence to defy pressures from restaurateurs and advertisers, Ms. Sheraton was the first woman to review restaurants for The Times. She pioneered reviewing-in-disguise, dining in wigs and tinted glasses and using aliases for reservations, mostly in high-end places where people would have otherwise known her from repeat visits and lavished their attentions on her.

“The longer I reviewed restaurants, the more I became convinced that the unknown customer has a completely different experience from either a valued patron or a recognized food critic,” she wrote in her 2004 memoir, “Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life.” “For all practical purposes, they might as well be in different restaurants.”

Knowing what I know about the restaurant industry, it’s hard to believe reviews were ever conducted not in disguise. That regular patrons (and recognized critics) get better service and food couldn’t be more obvious, which is the reason it’s such a joy to find your favorite spots and become a valued regular at them.

Colleagues and other restaurant critics described her reviews as tough but fair and scrupulously researched. The Times required three visits to a restaurant before publishing a review; she dined six to eight times before passing judgment. For an article on deli sandwiches, she collected 104 corned beef and pastrami samples in one day to evaluate the meat and sandwich-building techniques. [...]

Another of her reviews, based on blind tastings by several Times staff members, favored private-label liquors over popular brand names of Scotch, bourbon, rye, vodka and gin. The review ran weeks before Christmas, the busy liquor-selling season.

“I heard that two million dollars’ worth of advertising had been canceled,” Ms. Sheraton recalled in her memoir. She approached the executive editor. “I asked Abe Rosenthal if that was true. He said, ‘That’s none of your business. It was a great story.’”

Wednesday, 9 August 2023