Per Se and the Power of the Review

How the mighty have fallen.

Just when we might have thought the Times would pander the occasional fancy restaurant, designer, movie or book, Pete Wells completely pans Per Se. For those of us on the West Coast or who are just starting to nibble at the edges of places to which we must make a dining pilgrimage, Per Se’s place on every foodie’s Must Eat list was all but carved in stone before Wells and his review changed the restaurant’s mystique forever on Tuesday. Wells does not hold back, mentioning everything from bong water (and not in a favorable context) to Thomas Keller’s massive miscalculation when combining favorite dishes of late with new pairings (“they make Per Se’s new material look random and purposeless”) to the cringe-worthy price of risotto. His $3000 meal was not, it seemed, anything close to what he hoped and Per Se was downgraded from the NYT elite 4-Star club to a measly 2.

More interesting to us, though, were the (at press time) 866 comments. Ranging from an astute comparison to the average American’s food budget for months to not-so-hidden smirks about not loving New York’s “self-regarding” (to borrow from Wells) high-end dining scene after other experiences in supposedly rarified air had also fallen short, and of course to praise for Wells’ brutal honesty and wit in the face of a name considered cooking and restaurant royalty. Most of the commenters also took time to vote up other comments (654 so far) and some of the higher voted comments are at well over 300 recommendations. The New York Times doesn’t release numbers on the articles seeing the most engagement (though it does have a Popular page, where the article is sitting on every list) but its safe to say the Wells piece, not only for its takedown but also for its seriously sharp and characteristically descriptive writing, saw a lot of traffic and discussion even by the standards of the Times.

These commenters write with passion and something like humility, at times rushing to the defense of the poor server who failed to pick up a napkin, at other times pulling favorite lines as “one for the ages” (again, bong water). Currently, the most recommended comment comes from Orange Creamsicle of Long Island, who mentioned that he and his wife would occasionally go to nice New York restaurants but found they did not meet expectations and was glad to see these establishments called out for what they were. His comment ends with the phrase many might of been thinking: “Me, I just want some honest cooking.”

What can be learned from this pleasant/ shocking/ really well-written…  diss?

Be unafraid. Will Pete Wells be a favorite around Per Se for a bit? Likely no. Was writing an honest review worth it? Absolutely.

Participation Counts. The Times has a pretty sophisticated commenting section which really adds to the overall feel of the review and  reactions of every type. Make sure you are investing in getting your writers to comment and participate!

Even when writing negatively, write genuinely. Wells exemplifies why he’s an award winning food and drink writer throughout this piece.

Go forth and takedown! Within reason!

 

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