On the day Frank Bruni's memoir "Born Round" officially hit shelves—the day of a well-oiled media blitzkrieg that found the once-anonymous critic on Good Morning America, NPR and in several major papers—we had lunch at Shake Shack Upper West Side. It was Frank's choice. "I was really excited when this place opened," says the animated (and bespoked) former reviewer as we sat down.
With a double cheeseburger in hand ("Tomato, ketchup and nothing else," as the advance order went via text message), we started to connect some dots, hack through rumor and myth, and figure out what Franktastic really thinks about Cipriani Fifth Avenue. And boy is Frank Bruni one fantastic interview.
Why are we here?
It's not just that the Upper West Side has lacked a density of great restaurants, but it also hasn't had those types of "It" restaurants you want to eat in. This is one of those "It" restaurants. The Upper West Side is not a hip neighborhood, but [Shake Shack] says something about the neighborhood's savvy. It's also impossible to be a restaurant critic in this town and not constantly intersect with Danny Meyer.
Have you met the man?
I've never met the man. Spoken to him on the phone, years ago. He's somebody, like Mario Batali, who looms very large in the consciousness of a restaurant critic. So I feel this sort of odd connection to Shake Shack. And I really like the burgers here, which actually wasn't always the case. I love the beef blend and the flavor, but I was always bummed out by the ratio of beef-to-bun-to-condiments. But then I realized I was being the biggest bonehead in the word. Just get a double! I have no idea why it took me several years to figure out this instant fix to my Shake Shack issues.
What do you think of all these "boutique" blends of ground beef popping up?
I feel it's getting pretty silly. There are only so many ways to skin a cat. When the [Shake Shack] blend came along and the Resto blend came along, people were still doing things that hadn't been done before. Let's put some fat back in the burger. Let's use some short rib or brisket. At this point, everybody is tweaking the formula by 10 percent just to have something proprietary. But the main advances were made years ago.
Danny Meyer told Restaurant Girl that he "trusts that [new critic] Sam Sifton will give Union Square Café another day in court." How does the retrial play out?
I have no idea what Sam will chose to review or not, but I would be surprised if he got to it during his first year. That said, if I was in his shoes and hearing from people that Union Square had really kicked their game up a notch, I'd go back.
What is your relationship with Sam Sifton?
Sam and I are friends, and I would say that he has joined me for dinner once every four months for the duration of my tenure.
What was your last meal with him?
We went to Cru. I was thinking of re-reviewing Cru, and I had gone a couple times until it was announced that Shea [Gallante] was leaving. So it immediately rendered my visits obsolete.
Did this happen often?
It happens a lot, which is why you have to have extra restaurants in rotation. There are times when I have committed four meals to a restaurant and have had to kill it.
How does that feel?
It feels like a waste of time, but you had four free meals with friends—which isn't that much of a waste of time. There are times when the third and forth meals have been so terrible that I couldn't, with good conscience, give it one or two stars. And I couldn't draw attention to it, only to kick it down. So those go in the trash.
But you can kick a Cipriani.
You can kick a Cipriani. There is no moral qualm with calling Cipriani Fifth Avenue a ridiculous money suck. But to do that to a mom-and-pop place, that nobody is wondering about, that could put it out of business? To me that is not moral.
How much do you plan to go out now that you're off the beat?
I don't know. The first week I stopped going out for work I ended up eating out almost every night. That's my tendency. That's what I love to do. I can't imagine eating out less than three nights a week.
Any food you are totally averse to?
[Response covered by Grub Street, with pointed commentary by Grub Street]
Why The Redhead as your last review?
I didn't think I should treat my last review as some sort of cymbal crash. I was the newspaper's critic for five years. Biff [Grimes] was the critic for four and a half years before me. Ruth [Reichl] before him. Sam after me. The job and the tradition are so much bigger than the person. So I wanted it to be the kind of restaurant that could have made it into the column at any moment. Also, The Redhead was a neat little mirror of a lot of the dining trends that were most prominent during the period I was critic.
From the location in the East Village to the impromptu nature of the way it came together. If you were nominating 10 restaurants to tell the dining story of the last five years, this would be one of them.
Since your "retirement," whom have you met face to face whom you couldn't have the previous five years?
I went to Babbo last night and the maître d' came up to me and had a conversation that I clearly couldn't have had for years. He said he saw me in "Julie & Julia" and liked the white jacket I was wearing. This morning I had breakfast at The Standard and the chef just came out to say hello. Being a critic, it was weird to be forced to have a wall up. It's a necessary wall, but still weird. I remember seeing Chris Cannon from Marea a couple months ago. I was standing on the street with my cell phone and he walked by and we both kind of looked at each other with a "what do we do here?" sort of expression. We ended up walking our own ways.
Photo by Sam Horine