Pete Wells’s Odyssey as Restaurant Critic Throughout Pandemic


It was a few more weeks before I wrote any reviews. At first I worried that my opinion would be unfair if restaurants tried so hard to adapt to the new reality. Eventually I understood that this was exactly what the reviews would be worth writing. Good food in a pandemic was great; good food seemed like a miracle and I found good food everywhere.

My pandemic reviews point out how restaurants have shortened menus and simplified dishes, but even the shorter, stripped-down versions had much to be praised. These small businesses, some of which had opened during the pandemic and all of which were struggling to survive, had something that got me into bringing joy to New Yorkers while keeping them healthy at the same time. I didn’t just want to report about it. I wanted to hit a drum so people would watch.

The decision not to star any reviews, as The Times has done since the 1960s, was an easy one. I used to try to get the stars to reflect how close a particular restaurant has got to an ideal version of itself. But there weren’t any ideal restaurants in the pandemic, just places that made up for it over time.

Almost everything that has to do with outdoor dining appealed to me: the street life, the flower pots, the smallest architecture of street platforms. Even the weather played along and stayed mostly dry and temperate until the end of December. But there was no question that Christmas was getting too cold to dine outside.

In my reporter mode, I was told by scientists, airflow engineers, and other experts how Covid-19 is transmitted, and last summer and fall I was pretty sure that eating outdoors can be relatively safe for everyone. (Some public health experts believe that even eating outdoors in New York City is unsafe now, while the local risk of Covid transmission remains very high.) I haven’t had the same certainty about eating indoors or about some The plywood structures I mentioned have closed verandas, especially their windows and doors, which are closed so that they have almost no ventilation. I’ve moved away from some of them.

I wanted to keep checking restaurants, but I didn’t want to go back to their dining rooms, both because of the risk and because I feared that readers would take this as the all-clear. When the governor stopped eating in the house in December, my selfish reaction was relief. Then I got depressed for a moment. How would restaurants survive? And how would I continue to write about it?

An answer was already appearing on sidewalks and streets in the form of small greenhouses, huts, tents and yurts. In these personal dining rooms you can (and should) only sit with people from your own household. If the restaurant thoroughly ventilates the space between seats, any germs you breathe should be the same ones jumping around your house. Many restaurants instruct their waiters to stay out of the building as much as possible, but others do not.