A friend of mine was distraught over the fact that I allowed the 50th anniversary of Craig Claiborne’s first restaurant reviews to slip by without comment. When I protested that Claiborne was so well known that it was unnecessary to dote on him, this friend remarked that the critic was in fact largely forgotten. After an informal survey (and a number of blank stares), it appears he was right.
Craig Claiborne became Food Editor of the New York Times in 1957, at a time when newspaper food coverage was a weak extension of the “women’s section.” He began composing brief, capsule descriptions of Manhattan restaurants, and by 1962 these had morphed into full-blown reviews. He created the four-star system still in use at the Times, and had the greatest impact of any journalist on the nation’s restaurant scene. Along with M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child, he was one of the century’s most influential food writers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, American restaurants were in a sorry state. In each major city, there were a handful of “good” restaurants, mostly establishments that served classical French food. Even in those places, the dishes were composed of frozen fish and second-rate produce, generally obscured by heavy sauces. Claiborne began to hold restaurants accountable for the quality of their food and the standards of their service. He introduced readers to Asian and Mexican cuisine, forms of cooking so unknown at the time that they seemed to be coming from another solar system. Through his many cookbooks, and his collaboration with French chef and TV personality Pierre Franey, he basically created food culture as we know it today.
His most famous (or infamous) moment came in 1975, when he paid $300 at a charity auction sponsored by American Express for a dinner for two, with no price limit. Claiborne and Franey flew to Paris and dined at Chez Denis, the most expensive restaurant in the city at that time. They went through 31 courses and racked up a $4,000 tab (the equivalent of $20,000 in today’s dollars), accompanied by priceless wines such as Romanée-Conti 1929 and Petrus 1961.
Hedonism aside, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was injecting ethics into the process of reviewing restaurants. Prior to Claiborne, it was routine for critics to announce themselves and accept complimentary meals in exchange for positive reviews. He insisted on paying his own way, dined anonymously, and maintained the strictest of objective standards. It’s an approach that many present-day food “authorities” would be wise to emulate.