It’s easy to imagine that being a restaurant critic would be one of the best jobs on Earth — particularly when millions of people are eager to churn out lengthy reviews for free on sites like Yelp and Chowhound.
As someone who was the food critic for a glossy magazine in San Francisco in the 1980s and quit, however, I can tell you that being a roving palate-for-hire is a mixed blessing. While dining out is one of life’s most enduring pleasures (and is certainly a rare privilege on a planet where one in six people are starving), having to eat in restaurants several nights a week, while manufacturing an opinion about every bite, can get to be a drag.
Of course, at first, being a critic in one of the great restaurant cities on Earth felt like getting paid to have sex with someone you love.
The Quest for the Platonic Cheesecake
It would not be an overstatement to say that I have a complicated relationship with food. Some of my fondest memories of growing up in New York are of crossing the street from my elementary school (P.S. 26 in Queens) to a store called Sweets ‘N’ Treats. There, mesmerized before a rack of Sugar Daddies, BB Bats, Atomic Fireballs, and Bonomo Turkish Taffy, I would ponder the virtues of a Mounds (twin ovals of waxy chocolate stuffed with coconut goo) versus those of an Almond Joy — which was the same thing, but topped with whole almonds. I’d often buy both to see which I liked better that day, and generations of future gym coaches wept.
In fifth grade, I became obsessed with the idea of finding the best cheesecake in the world, or at least the New York metropolitan area. Because cheesecake is a staple in Greek diners — displayed in acrylic “hat boxes” with crowns of Chernobyl-scale strawberries in ruby fluorescent glaze, or positioned under angled mirrors in coolers facing the door — my potential data set was enormous.
At the less dense end of the spectrum were fluffy, nearly dry Italian versions that sublimated on the tongue to yield the milky tang of ricotta and a refreshing note of lemon peel. At the heavy end were moist, cream-cheese-laden gut bombs with enough mass to tip the table, armored in forkproof graham-cracker crusts.