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Wells on Talde: The Resting on Laurels Problem

Marty L.

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I don't usually post on this board and don't know if it's the right forum, but couldn't think of where else on dr.com this might be appropriate, so here goes . . .

Be curious whether anyone else shares my impression that Pete Wells's NYT review today of Talde is important, and potentially devastating, not only for the restaurant reviewed, but for others as well, at least if other critics were to take the cue.

It'll only take you a couple of minutes to read the review, but here's the gist: Dale Talde opened a hot (eponymous) restaurant in Park Slope. Wells went early and had a great meal. The kitchen was hitting on all cylinders, and Talde's business partners were present and making sure the place ran like a charm. Talde's reputation soared on the great early word-of-mouth. It became impossible to get a table.

Wells then returned a few months later. Place was hopping, of course, but by this time Talde himself was no longer present in the kitchen (he was busy expanding to a new venture); nor were his partners there. Wells' second meal and service were atrocious.

OK, these things happen: perhaps it was an off-night.

So Wells returns for a third visit. This time, he was recognized by the staff by the door, who "immediately jumped into action, buzzing with that nervous energy produced by the sight of a restaurant critic." Once again, Talde was not manning the kitchen . . . for about 15 minutes. Obviously, the call went out, he arrived, made sure that Wells was served another great meal, on par with the first, and then he "retreated to a spot by the bar with Mr. Massoni [his partner], who had materialized in the dining room at around the same time."

Wells's table then orders another dish. Their server turns from their table to Talde, who then walks "from the bar to the kitchen pass. Once the pad Thai had been delivered to our table, Mr. Talde left the kitchen again."

Wells closes with this:

"[M]aybe the presence of a critic had recreated the atmosphere of Talde’s opening weeks. If so, then Mr. Talde and his partners should be able to keep conjuring that environment every night. It would be good for their customers, and a welcome return to the way restaurants used to operate.”


It just so happened to be Talde that bore the brunt of it, but of course the victim of this harsh review might also have been one of a number of other restaurants, in New York or elsewhere.

It's fair to say, I think, that this has become a familiar phenomenon: We are wowed by a new restaurant. So is everyone else. It becomes a difficult reservation to secure. At which point the chef, no longer needing to impress, delegates many of his or her functions to assistants, with the basic instruction to keep things moving as is. The chef goes off to attend to greener (often equally impressive) pastures, or in any event no longer attends to the details of the first restaurant with anything like the obsessiveness and care that characterized those heady and exhausting first few months. The spark gradually goes out, and the kitchen becomes much more pro forma. Yet no one does much about it, because the customers continue to pour in.

Don't get me wrong: I think this remains the exception rather than the rule. And it's a pattern that's hardly limited to the restaurant business. But it does seem to happen more often lately, doesn't it? (I couldn't help but think here of our recent discussion in the Jaleo thread, especially since today's Times also has a story about the growing Andres empire. Some Rockwellians have written that Jaleo has lost much of its luster as Jose Andres has devoted himself to more far-flung projects. I agreed that from time to time the downtown and Bethesda Jaleos seem tired; but to Andres's great credit, IMHO, he usually does something (I assume installing a new chef) that revitalizes them.)

Will restaurant owners and chefs, in New York and elsewhere, be chastened by the Talde review and do more to retain consistency over time? What would the effect be if Sietsema and Kliman were to run similar reviews here?

Another obvious lesson: We should be very grateful for the terrific restaurants that don't succumb to this problem -- the ones that make great efforts to keep their quality at a high level year after year, long after they could have simply continued to rake in profits by exploiting customer habits developed in the early days. Proof, Corduroy, Ray's the Steaks and 2 Amys come to mind, but I'm sure you all could list many others. Consistency and reliability are precious things; we shouldn't take them for granted.

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