My parents and I walk into Le Cirque in New York City for the second time in two months, and the difference between our first visit and second is startling. The first time, we were ignored by Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque’s famous owner, and ushered to a loser table in the back; this time the maitre’d seats us immediately at a table in the frontthe best spot in the house. Bus boys and waiters swoop down on us and ask us what we want to drink, if we want sparkling or flat water, if we’d like to see the wine list. Mauro Maccioni, Sirio’s son, makes sure to check in on us every so often. When the meal is over and my father asks for the check, a man who looks like he might be Sirio’s brother bends down and whispers in my father’s ear. When he walks away, my dad says, grinning, “Tonight, we’re guests of the Maccioni family.”
What transpired between our first and second visits? The answer lies beneath your fingertips.
The power of blogging, nowadays, is irrefutable. Blogging has ousted political leaders, written dialog for Samuel L. Jackson, and forced Doogie Howser out of the closet. In the realm of food, blogging is just beginning to gain power. Restaurateurs and chefs are starting to take notice of the strange quiet types scribbling notes and taking pictures of their food.
Sam Breach, of the food blog Becks and Posh says, “I don't take photos at dinner anymore in the Bay Area for fear of being outed as a bloggerthis town is over-run with them.”
Food bloggers are making a dent on the restaurant scene because of the way the Web has been integrated into our everyday life. New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, who began blogging on the paper's site himself, says, “I think restaurant reviews on food blogs have an impact, because a curious, hesitant consumer who’s Internet-savvyand these days, who isn't?can plug in a restaurant's name and toggle between a dozen reviews on a dozen different sites without necessarily knowing much about the sites or seeking them out per se. The aggregate impression of a restaurant that this person gets, built from these reviews, has to have an impact. How could it not?”
The presence of food bloggers, then, should be cause for concern in the restaurant community. Regina Schrambling, food writer and proprietor of gastropoda.com, says, “I think every restaurateur should either be reading all the bloggers, big and small, or be paying someone to do a Technorati search every morning. When I was in restaurant school, one of the first lessons was that a diner who has a good experience will tell one person. Have a bad one and that tale goes viral, to 10 or 20 or more. Bloggers amplify that danger beyond belief. And this is damage a restaurateur can control, just by paying attention to ‘the little people.’”
Dan Barber, the gifted chef at New York City's Blue Hill and its sister restaurant upstate, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, subscribes to this theory. He reads blog reviews and sees them as a more sophisticated version of a comment card. “The real power of it is the way that it informs the chef and the manager and the waiters and the staff. That’s what every restaurant wantsevery good restaurant should be encouraging bloggers.”
Still, blogs have their drawbacks for chefs. “I read a lot of blog reviews that are very misinformed and flat-out wrong,” Barber adds. “But more often than not they’re pretty informative even with that.”
And while some chefs, like Barber, are generally open-minded when it comes to blogs, other chefs are more hostile to the idea. For example, there’s the way that Washington, D.C., chef Carole Greenwood responded to a write-up of her restaurant Buck’s Camping and Fishing by Jason Storch of DCfoodies.com. After posting a positive review of his meal (including pictures), he received a cease-and-desist letter from Greenwood’s attorney asking him to remove the photos from his site.
Jason ultimately took the post down but the incident created a maelstrom of bad publicity for Greenwood and her restaurant.
So how should a restaurant handle a food blogger? Enter Sirio Maccioni. After a disastrous first meal at Le Cirque with my family, I wrote a post on my website titled (perhaps inappropriately) Only a Jerk Would Eat at Le Cirque. In it, I said I couldn’t believe a restaurant could charge so much for food that was so mediocre and served in such an oppressive environment. I concluded my review, “New York is filled with wondrous restaurants, restaurants with food and hospitality that rival all of the world's major cities. Why anyone would waste their money at a place as unwelcoming and uninspired as Le Cirque is baffling.”
A few weeks after I posted my review, my mom called me in disbelief when a package came to her door from Le Cirque. She opened it, and inside was a copy of Sirio Maccioni’s autobiography and a letter printed on Le Cirque stationery:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Roberts, I was sorry to hear that your experience at Le Cirque was not as it should have been. I assure you that we do not consider your seating arrangement a “bad table,” but I regret that there was a problem with your appetizer. I trust that our servers corrected this as quickly as they possibly could.
The letter addressed all of the concerns from my review (my mom’s artichoke was undercooked) and concluded with an invitation to come back to “experience Le Cirque as it really is and should be.”
We did go back, and we were treated exceptionally well. There was the table at the front and the excellent service and the special attention from Mauro (Sirio was out that night). The food, I must say, was less than dazzling: The Venison entrée was poorly cooked (tough and grainy) and a side of French fries arrived at room temperature. Yet we enjoyed the “star treatment,” if you could call it that, and savored the evening for what it was.
And what it was, it turns out, is a confirmation that a new age is herethe age of the food blog. Le Cirque is a litmus test for power and status in New York. Ruth Reichl wrote her famous dual review for the New York Times in which she went twice, once as a dowdy midwesterner named Molly and the second time as herself. As Molly, she was treated like garbage, as herself she was treated like a star.
Then, Ruth Reichl was the champion of the nobody. Nowadays, with the advent of the food blog, the nobodies no longer need a champion. At the click of a button, the nobodies can champion themselves.
About the author: Adam Roberts is The Amateur Gourmet. His book, The Amateur Gourmet, will be published by Bantam/Dell in summer 2007.