Foodie Guy Fieri got flogged in review, but does it matter?

Chef Guy Fieri
Chef Guy Fieri

Guy Fieri may not realize it, but being ravaged by a New York Times restaurant reviewer might have been the best thing that could have happened to him.

Sure, the Food Network celebrity probably laments the lashings Pete Wells doled out last week to his 500-seat Times Square ode to down home grub, Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. And he might have taken it personally when Wells said the restaurant’s roasted pork bahn mi resembles the authentic Vietnamese sandwich “about as much as you resemble Emily Dickinson.”

Even the upshots of Wells’ review probably were tough to take. Such as, “The well-meaning staff seems to realize that this is not a real restaurant.” Or this gem, in which Wells references what he says were the best cocktails on the menu: “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”

Well, perhaps “best thing” that could have happened is too generous. But it may well turn into a good thing. And it certainly is a survivable thing. Here’s why.

I’ll be the one to say it — people who care about food, and people who heed the Times’ reviews, were never going to eat there. Never. And Fieri knew this, or at least he should have.

You don’t build a three-story monstrosity of a restaurant smack in the tourism heart of New York with the goal of attracting people looking for great dining. And you certainly don’t fill your menu with things called Chinatown chicken crunch, unyawns Cajun chicken ciabatta and Vegas fries if your goal is to impress with your culinary chops.

People go to the restaurant, which opened earlier this fall, for an experience. Somewhat comically, that experience has morphed into a game of, “Is it really that bad?”

It’s a question that burned on the web within minutes of Wells’ review going viral Tuesday night, and undoubtedly will drive traffic to his tables.

Of course, Fieri takes issue with Wells’ thrashing. Though he has acknowledged that the review gave him some things to think about, he stands by his restaurant’s food and service.

“At my restaurants, we always try to live by a very simple notion: that food brings people together,” Fieri said in an emailed statement. “I’ve learned that not everyone agrees with my style. The Times’ critic, Pete Wells, clearly did not enjoy his experience. It’s clear to me that he went into my restaurant with his mind already made up.

Wells, who visited Fieri’s restaurant four times before honoring it with his first ever no-star (and “poor”) rating since taking over as the Times’ restaurant critic a year ago, denies any agenda.

The reality is, that doesn’t much matter. There is a serious element of everyman sympathy at play in this one, no matter how un-everyman Fieri has become. The Wells-Fieri slapfest is being billed as the hoity toity Times beating up on the blue-collar guy who just loves him a good feed of beer and wings.

Fieri stands to benefit — plenty of people will give him a sympathetic nod, buying the idea that he was treated unfairly.

Was he? Not really. It certainly was a scathing review delivered in a sucker punch fashion. But I don’t buy the argument that Wells shouldn’t have reviewed it, either because the restaurant was so bad it didn’t warrant a review, or because the very nature of the place (and the man behind it) places it outside the league of “real” restaurants that merit reviews.

To accept those arguments is to accept that the food served to Average Joes and Janes isn’t worthy of criticism, and that it shouldn’t be held to higher standards. Fieri has built his career touting the foods of everyday America. If that’s what he’s going to serve in his restaurant, it seems only fair that he be held to answer for the quality of that food.