Each month, Tasting Table will take a deep dive into a food story with which we're obsessed. In our first installment, we're chasing the ghost of our editor in chief's favorite New York City restaurant critic, Seymour Britchky.
You never dine alone in New York. There may be a single place setting, one napkin, a solitary fork trailing through the rustic berry crumble, but there is always a ghost next to you at the table. It's a small city of infinite souls, constantly writing, erasing and rescribbling its history on top of itself.
As you take a bite of grass-fed steak tartare, you think to yourself, Didn't this restaurant used to be called something else? I think that's the chef who worked downtown at . . . where was that? I could have sworn this used to be the bar where . . . remember? Remember?
The details fade. The addresses change. The names get hazy. For two all-too-brief decades, self-appointed restaurant critic Seymour Britchky made it his mission to capture it all in shockingly astute, hilarious, quotable prose before disappearing in his own right to become one of the city's best-fed (and, essentially, forgotten) ghosts.
Seymour Britchky: Given its gruff, distinctive ring, you might think it's a name all but impossible to forget. Ardes Quinn, the owner of his favorite later-in-life restaurant haunt, Café Loup, says she used to tell him that with a handle like that, he was fundamentally predisposed to be a curmudgeon—which by all accounts he was, both in person and print—but given how the food landscape has so vastly expanded, it's both surprising and unfortunate that precious few people remember his name now, only 11 years after his death.
Those who do can quote him chapter and verse (Tribeca restaurateur Drew Nieporent recalls, "For me to remember the line about the house wine being Alka-Seltzer, there's nothing like that craft."). When food obsessives cite their heroes, they tend to invoke a particular canon: MFK Fisher and Ruth Reichl for their heady, evocative prose; Gael Greene for her saucy wit; R.W. Apple and Calvin Trillin for their bonhomous wanderings; Anthony Bourdain for his honed and hungry swagger; Jonathan Gold, because he is Jonathan freaking Gold. Britchky's people are in it for his acid tongue and gimlet eye—the way he etched a menu, a moment, a space, a feeling, an era in dining when not every plate was Instagram-ready, every interaction Yelp-able to the world. For him, every meal was personal, every review a master class in the art of food writing.
The way Britchky got started is remarkably low key by today's standards: In 1971, when the then 41-year-old marketing executive decided to enter the restaurant-reviewing game, he did not do a crash course in food writing at The New School or become Twitter BFFs with his favorite taco truck owner. As his widow, photographer Nancy Crampton, said in an e-mail a few years back, he considered his primary qualification as a restaurant critic simply to be that he ate three meals a day, every day of his life, and it pleased him to do so. It was his passion, and he paid for it.
Britchky set up shop as the publisher of a monthly printed newsletter, "The Restaurant Reporter," which was compiled by HarperCollins into a bound volume called The Restaurants of New York in 1974. From 1976 (when Britchky shuttered "The Restaurant Reporter") to 1983, Random House took over publishing duties, and from 1984 to the final edition in 1991, the book found a home at Simon & Schuster. There were 16 volumes in all—as well as a newly renamed "Seymour Britchky's Restaurant Letter," which he sold via subscription for $15 a year for 12 monthly issues, $25 for two years in 1982, which ratcheted up to a whopping $35 annually by the time it ceased in 1991.
In addition to the pithy prose portraits of restaurants (often at a length almost unthinkable by today's mobile-centric readership), Britchky's reviews took pains to ensure their readers never had to experience a bad meal. He grouped restaurants in one section of the index by stars, four to one, then the even-lower "Acceptable" to "Unacceptable." He calculated costs from "Inexpensive" ($25 or less for dinner for two, beverages, tax and tip in 1976, and in 1990, that covered a three-course dinner for one, coffee, no tax or tip) to "Very Expensive" (1976: over $50, 1990: over $45). Another staple: "Ten Sensible Rules About Going to, Eating in, Paying at, and Departing from New York Restaurants" (No. 10, "Departure: Leave when you are good and ready. It is your right to eat at your own pace, including lingering over a second cup of coffee. Enjoy possession of a table that others are waiting in line for. Later they will.").
An exerpt from Britchky's 1976 book
Though some reviews were repeated from book to book—and picked up in varying forms in New York Magazine and other publications—Britchky made it his business to visit and revisit restaurants, anonymously and on his own dime (a rarity today), to chronicle the shifts and moods in service, chefs, menu and decor. And his choices weren't necessarily the same venues that the mainstream critics were covering—a welcome shift, even for industry insiders. Food writer Regina Schrambling worked at The New York Times and admired the work of the paper's critics, Mimi Sheraton and Bryan Miller, but truly relished Britchky's outsider perspective.
"It was almost like he was in an alternate universe, running on a road alongside the interstate. The places he was writing about were removed from what they were writing about, which was good," Schrambling said. "His world was not hanging out with chefs like writers do today. He just did his own thing. He said what he wanted. He did what he wanted. It was right for the period, and it was a different way of looking at New York."
Britchky noted in the foreword of the 1976 edition, "The current revision of The Restaurants of New York is appearing a scant two years after publication of the first edition. This may seem like a hasty return to market for a New York restaurant guide (to judge by competitors' sluggish standards), but like the city itself, the restaurant scene is being constantly transformed: here the overnight disappearance of what looked like an indestructible institution, there the evaporation of a predictably short-lived fly-by-night."