Menuplease: The Downside of Fame – Guy Fieri’s Cautionary Tale

On September 12, 2012, The Village Voice wrote a not-complimentary review of the new restaurant opened in Times Square by celebrity TV chef Guy Fieri.  Three weeks later on October 2,  the New York Observer published a scathing review of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, which can be read here.  The same day, October 2, the New York Post likewise published an equally blistering review. Not quite two weeks later on October 13,  Time Out followed suit with a no-star review.

But it was not until November 13 when Pete Wells, food critic for the New York Times, wrote his now-famous critique of Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, that Guy Fieri got around to responding.  Not surprisingly – but perhaps unwisely – Fieri accused Wells of going “into my restaurant with his mind already made up” and “having an agenda,”  though he did not say what that agenda might be. He also said that writing a bad review of his restaurant was “a great way to make a name for yourself.”  He seemed surprised that the review came out after the restaurant had been open only two months, but “wait till we’re open six months” when everything will presumably be just dandy.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Femme de Joie will state that she purchased a teapot and a pair of earrings at Abraxas, the shop in Ferndale owned and operated by Guy Fieri’s parents; however, she bought those in the 1980s, long before Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Alsoshe has never dined at any of Guy Fieri’s restaurants and so cannot comment on whether Wells was spot-on or unduly cranky. In the spirit of fuller disclosure, M. de Joie will admit she isn’t a big fan of Guy Fieri, and she’s been feeling a certain amount of schadenfreude over the review and Fieri’s blustering response to it.  A couple of points she would like to throw out there:

The New York Times food critic already has a name and does not need to cling to the coattails of a Food Network star to enhance it. If anyone should be worried about a name, it’s Fieri, trading on his fame to attract customers: if he doesn’t deliver what they expect, his name will be besmirched by his own hand, not Wells’. Indeed, Wells was criticized by others not for what he said, but that he chose to review a restaurant in Times Square aimed squarely at the tourist trade instead of a “serious” restaurant; the response to that was that the Times’ movie critic had reviewed “Dumb and Dumber” and that this was the culinary equivalent.

Agendas (sometimes called grudges): we haz em. It’s to see if the food is any good. Most restaurant reviewers aren’t going to be as kind as Marilyn Hagerty.

In this day of instantaneous internet reviews, restaurants can’t afford to ignore valid complaints or deny the existence of problems. No one likes to be criticized, especially in a very public place, so it’s natural to be on the defense. But when a sledgehammering review comes out, spin and finger-pointing isn’t the answer. It’s unfortunate that Guy Fieri chose to ignore the early negative reviews and only acted when the most well-known newspaper in the country printed a scathing takedown.

What’s a restauranteur to do? Mistakes are inevitable and in this day of instantaneous internet check-ins, Yelpers can kick a restaurant to the curb before dessert arrives. But how a restaurant handles problems can go a long way in determining whether that viral review is good or bad.  A few months ago Femme de Joie and Amico del Signore dined in a Wine Country restaurant. When we pointed out the earwig floating in the soup, it would have been smart for the chef-owner to be horrified and beg for forgiveness; instead, she denied that it was an earwig. She said it was the stem of a fresh herb. We pointed out the pincers and legs. She frowned and said she carefully washed all the produce and she just didn’t know how the earwig wound up in the soup, and she still wasn’t convinced it was a bug at all. Five minutes passed before she agreed to take the soup away and make something else. The restaurant comped us one meal, but by that time the damage was done. We’ll never be back.

Conversely, when House of Prime Rib in San Francisco overlooked our reservation for nearly an hour, they apologized profusely and told us to order any glass of wine for free. Though we weren’t knocked out by the food, the experience was a much more positive one.

Of course, preventing problems before they start is the best way; when the inevitable breakdowns occur, don’t deny it. If the early returns indicate trouble in the kitchen or with staff, it would do owners/chefs well to pay attention. Saying, “Oh, they’re just Yelpers, those people will complain about anything” is ignoring instant feedback that could be doing a restaurant a favor in the long run.

Guy Fieri does seem to be taking Pete Wells’ review seriously: the watermelon margarita, which Wells said tasted like a combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde, has disappeared from the menu. (Still, it makes one wonder if Fieri had ever actually tasted one before it went on the menu in the first place.) In the end, he will probably do just fine. He’s a famous brand, like Holiday Inn or McDonald’s, a familiar face from TV in an unfamiliar landscape, a reassurance to tourists overwhelmed by the frenetic Big Apple. That’s the part that will draw them in. If they have a good experience, they’ll be back; if not, his famous name will be his own personal albatross.

Is all good publicity good publicity? It’s up to Fieri to make it so.

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Chamberlain, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

Femme de Joie
Femme de Joie's first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.
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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Chris B. says:

    The 'wait six months' comment is appalling to me. My late husband, a chef, and I knew when he opened a restaurant, it had to be spot-on, both front-of-the-house and food, from day one. Locals, in particular, will give you one strike and you're out. His advantage is that most of his clientele – tourists – never have to give him a second try.

  2. Avatar Ginny says:

    One time my husband and I went out to an upscale restaurant in San Jose that he said was supposed to be good. When, we arrived, you had to walk through the bar to the dining room. When we did, we found many empty tables. Didn't see anyone to seat us, so we picked out a table and sat down.

    Then a waiter came over and said the table was reserved. At least half of the tables were empty! Therefore, we had to wait in the bar for our table. The bar was overcrowded. Over an hour later, we were finally seated in a still near empty dining room. A couple we had conversed with in the bar was seated about 20 minutes later.

    We don't know if the couple every went back to that restaurant who wanted you to buy alcohol (mine was 7up!), wait over an hour to be seated in an near empty dining room, for a meal that was so-so.

    A number of years later, I conversed with a friend who knew the owner of the restaurant. He said she made money on the bar, therefore keep people in the bar!

    We never went back for a meal, plus told others the experience we had, had.

    Thanks for an excellent article, Doni. Once can only reap what they sew.

    • Avatar name says:

      I had a similar experience in Millbrae, where the dining room was only half full, but they kept fording us into the lounge – please take a look at our lounge and cocktail menu. After telling them 3 times we didnt want lounge/cocktails, they still did not get it. Would not even let us peruse a dinner menu. So we very loudly announced we were leaving, and the reason. We then walked down the road a few blocks and found La Collina, a wonderful Italian restaurant whose owner seated us within 1 minute…

    • Glad you liked the column. As much as I would love to take credit for the terrific writing, the Menu Please columns are written by Femme de Joie.

    • Avatar Voo says:

      "Reap what they Sow" I believe the term is dear.

  3. Avatar name says:

    I used to go to Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa (a Fieri owned joint) and it was always great food, prices, and service. It has been about 5 years though – maybe he has just become spread too thin, with too many different projects.

  4. Avatar Sandy Tincher says:

    We go to the Prime Rib House in San Francisco whenever we are in the area and we love it. We have never found anything in Redding that serves prime rib even close to what they have.

    • Avatar Canda says:

      You might try The Sand Trap at Tucker Oaks Golf course. They serve prime rib every Friday and Saturday, and I've heard good things about it. It's on our to do list!

  5. Avatar pmarshall says:

    Well, I still love Guy Fieri. There are several good restaurants in Santa Rosa, although we never ate at one of Guy's. I suspect when a restaurant owner doesn't have a "hands on" approach to his restaurant, things can go awry. I watch the Food Channel whem Guy is on, although there are other chefs on that are interesting. Restaurant Impossible is one I like. It's amazing how many restaurants are in really bad shape i.e. dirty, bad help. bad menu, etc.

  6. I love Guy Fieri, too, and am guilty of watching his show late at night, drooling all the way through it and going to bed hungry.

    As for the Times Square restaurant, I don't know what to say except that I have liked, even loved many movies over the years, that critics hated.

    And I wish some restaurants in Redding would take the cues from the restaurants who WANT their patrons to wait in the bar. How many times have we had to ask if we could wait in the bar, instead of the maitre d' offering! And how many times have we had to pay for our drinks separately because the bar was separate from the restaurant? What??

  7. Avatar D. Nethery says:

    I think one of Guy's problems, is his sullied reputation, due to his

    anti homosexual remarks. His anti-gay remarks, have been all over the

    internet. This may be why some people do not like him, and may have an

    agenda, when they review his establishments.

  8. Avatar LovestoEat says:

    just needing to get this thought off my chest:

    has anyone but me ever noticed how the really good, non-chain places to eat are far from the freeway, aka off the beaten path? think about it, if you capture tourists for patrons the food needn't be great as the customer surly won't return. but like an army of cockroaches they'll just keep coming as the never ending flow of traffic that travels the freeways is unending. that is what keeps chains open, not the good eats.

    support your local eating establishments please and know what great food tastes like peeps.

  9. Femme de Joie Femme de Joie says:

    This week Pete Wells took some questions from readers, and of course his review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar was brought up by several people. He explains why and how he wrote it here.

  10. Avatar Al Kohaul says:

    The "wait at the bar" when there are lots of empty tables is a definate tactic used by restaurants because the bar pays the bills. We recently had a very similar experience at our local Indian casino Thanksgiving buffet where we waited for almost an hour to be seated when most of the tables were empty. When we were seated it was in the back facing a TV screen. At 5 oclock the buffet that was to go until 8 was out of shrimp and dark meat. Disappointing? Well yes since I have been to other buffets there that were excellent. I wrote to them but they did not respond. Any casino has multiple ways to pay the bills and to skimp on one of the main draws for non or marginal gamblers is just bad business. Heads up for the Christmas buffet.

  11. Avatar Annie B. says:

    I very recently visited Guy Fieri's Johnny Garlic's in Roseville (of all places) and it was fabulous. The service was terrific – though we were there for a very late lunch, so it was very empty. The food was amazing. The woman who served us did tell us that he is reducing the number of his restaurants in order to increase quality.