He Had Me At Benihana
“Except for an interlude in the forties, in this country, the Japanese have always enjoyed a reputation for graciousness and hospitality.” Best-ever opening line in a restaurant review. If you are not familiar with Seymour Britchky, race to your local library, borrow from a friend, or start a query on Google for anything he has written. Unfortunately, I lent my copies of Britchky’s gems to my brother, and unsurprisingly, they were never returned. There are resellers online, and I got my latest copies from Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks.
If you are burdened by whiners on Yelp and Trip Advisor who practically set fire to a place for one tiny flaw even after being pleased on previous occasions, or because it doesn’t offer a “kids’ menu,” Seymour Britchky is for you. Do you long for good grammar, imaginative sentence structure and correct spelling? Seymour Britchky will make you sigh with nostalgic satisfaction. Take a few steps back in time to the latter part of the 20th century when New Yorkers seeking dining advice could be lead by one of the most erudite and excruciatingly funny restaurant reviewers of all time. The rest of us could simply howl with laughter or make a note for a future Big Apple dining experience from one of the guides he wrote from 1971 to 1991.
Warning: Britchky reviews should not be read in public situations
While many of the restaurants are gone, it’s fun to learn about what we missed and even more fun to read the reviews of the ones that are still here. You will be tempted to bring this book with you on Metro or the bus to work. Don’t. Laughing maniacally over Britchky’s review of Luchows may get you in trouble with transit security. I have tried reading him in the park and found that you still need to be by yourself. People will sidle over and ask what’s so funny. But in the safety of your own company, it is the perfect reading material to give you a quick jolt of happiness when the day has betrayed you. And if you are a disciplined person and don’t binge read, Britchky reviews can last over several months.
So Who Was Seymour Britchky?
Good question. In the beginning, Britchky was not paid by a newspaper or city magazine, but rather produced his own restaurant review newsletter. He was a marketing director who clearly knew how to turn a phrase. In 1971, he started his own monthly newsletter of restaurant reviews, because, as he put it, “I eat three meals a day.” He paid for his meals, was pretty much unrecognized, and maintained a lack of food critic snobbery that is sorely missed. His newsletters ultimately were produced by several different publishing houses until he ceased writing his brilliant essays in 1991. He died in 2004 at the age of 73.
I personally saw the value and deft hilarity of his reviews after I, too, had suffered ridiculously bad meals at The Oak Room in the Plaza Hotel and The Coach House. I had just started La Cuisine, and my husband and I were young and naive when we went to New York for our Big Apple dining experience. Both of these restaurants had come highly recommended (for different reasons) in some well known guides. Alas, we followed them instead of Britchky. Of the Oak Room’s pretentious but banal meal, he had written: “Can the roast beef really taste like medicine, the red snapper taste like one of Red Snapper‘s catcher’s mitts?” The answer to both from our experiences was a definitive “yes.” The Oak Room additionally offered a menu first for me: an Egg Benedict(yes, one half an English Muffin with one poached egg) for over $20.00. Of the funereal experience we had at The Coach House, Britchky had presciently written, “”Nothing about this restaurant is as remarkable as its reputation.” A perfectly wrought, one-sentence critique the likes of which you’ll never see on Yelp.