Monthly Archives: July 2015

Felix Salmon Is An Idiot

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[Photo courtesy Eater NY]

It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how much of an idiot Felix Salmon is. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Many of Felix’s opinions, published on myriad platforms at unexpected moments, strike me as smart and correct. But that’s a headline and lede I’ve always wanted to type, and Felix has offered the perfect opening with his deeply misguided Medium essay today about developer Aby Rosen’s decision to turn the kitchen and front of house at Manhattan’s iconic Four Seasons restaurant over to the power trio behind the Major Food Group: Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and Jeff Zalaznick.

Two personal memories of The Four Seasons. My first-ever visit there, invited by a flack to a business lunch with some chief executive something back when I covered telecom for a trade magazine in the late 1990s. I was ascending the carpeted stairs up to the dining room level when David Stern brushed past me on his way down the stairs. David Stern! The commissioner of the NBA! Way cooler than one’s average Hollywood celebrity sighting, to my mind then (and now), and a sure indicator of a true power lunch spot.

Second memory is from 2006. Eater had turned a year old, and someone in PR at The Four Seasons thought it a good idea to invite Leventhal and Steele in to have lunch and meet the front of house svengali, Julian Niccolini. After we’d been seated, Julian came over and joined our table. As the extremely animated conversation unfolded — Niccolini is not a quiet, reserved man — it became clear that he had only the vaguest idea of what Eater was. This frankly delighted me, as did his subsequent move in which he proffered a giant white truffle, then shaved more of it over our twin pastas than I have ever seen in one meal in my life, before or since, while screaming ecstatically throughout. After which he was off like a rabbit, hopping from table to table, bestowing truffles and good cheer throughout his kingdom.

That sort of showmanship epitomizes Niccolin’s Four Seasons, a place that every day features more wattage of the David Stern variety than any lunch spot in New York. Which is why it’s all quite amusing to read Felix’s take on the restaurant, which boils down to his analysis that The Four Seasons is a mausoleum that happens to serve food.

That the rooms comprising The Four Seasons — designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the architects of the Seagram Building on whose lower floors the restaurant sits — are modern masterpieces is self-evident. That they are also landmarked, and hence unable to be tampered much with in any meaningful way, is also clear. “I think we are respecting and celebrating,” Rosen told Jeff Gordinier, mentioning plans to upgrade the lighting and the leather upholstery. Gordinier: “He stressed that any changes would be cosmetic, saying, ‘You won’t walk in there and say, ‘What the hell has happened here?’” Say it ain’t so!

Probably the biggest aesthetic decision awaiting the Carbone/Torrisi team faces is whether to retain the Garth Huxtable service pieces. As Pete Wells correctly points out, the newcomers would be fools not to, and I predict that they will. In fact, I’ll predict that pretty much everything about the current Four Seasons experience remains the same under new management, with one major exception: the food.

To Felix, that the food at The Four Seasons is terrible is somehow part of the charm of the place: “Is it French? Is it American?” he asks. “The answer is: nobody really cares. There’s more than enough reason to dine at the Four Seasons already; the last thing it needs is foodies.”

While I couldn’t agree more that the last thing any place or anyone needs is foodies, certainly it’s not too much to ask in 2015 that the restaurant have food worth eating. And the Carbone/Torrisi team brings that in spades. And while Felix characterizes their style as big, it’s a word that really only fits Carbone and, to an extent, Dirty French. The first Torrisi was, if anything, too small, and what they’ve got going over at Santina right now is festive more than it is large. The thread pulling their empire together, however, is the excellence of the food.

There are people out there who don’t like the brashness of the Torrisi boys; I get that. But that brashness is more a personal critique than it is a critique of their restaurants. And I predict that they will find just the right person to run the Front of House — an absolutely critical piece, as Sifton notes — one who can keep the billionaires as content as they were yesterday, except now they’ll actually be eating good food.

Finally, this strange aside from Felix — “No one would object if [Team Torrisi], say, took over the space at Eleven Madison Park” — deserves comment. Because first, uh, what? And second, because the Eleven Madison Park team of Daniel Humm and Will Guidera are in fact working towards opening what appears to be their own play at a midtown power lunch spot. The restaurant will be a double-height beauty designed by — wait for it — Sir Norman Foster. Here’s an actual quote from the developer: “It will be Four Seasons on steroids for the 21st Century.”

Some people purport to really like the service touches of the Guidera/Humm empire. Personally, I find them cloying and overly precious. I predict the billionaires will feel the same way, and that the reborn Carbone/Torrisi Four Seasons (under a new name, of course) will not only keep what everyone loves about the current restaurant but also won’t feel the need to juice its service with steroids to stand out.

The fun part is, we’ll only have to wait a few years to find out who’s right and wrong about all of this. Felix, care to wager?

The Contest, Judged

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[graphical credit: Greg Morabito]

I wrote about Eater’s The Contest here the week before last, explaining that I was lining up a super-secret guest judge to help me render a verdict on the crazed Cheap Eats dining competition including Eater editors, Vox Media superstars, and Eater readers that had already gotten underway.

A few hours after publishing that post, a better idea struck me: I would adapt the ersatz scoring system devised by Verge entertainment editor Emily Yoshida for her Game of Game of Thrones recaps, and render daily judgements in that style. And so I did, though not before the judgements drove me as close to the brink of madness as The Contest did its contestants: Day One, Day Two, Day One and Two Bonus Rounds, Day Three, Day Four, Day Five Part One, and the grand finale, Day Five Part Two. For the record, that’s as many total words as I’ve written in any week since forever.

In the end, I didn’t end up judging the reader winner — Amanda and Robert handled that — which is really for the best or a week later I’m sure I’d still be scribbling scores on a napkin and trying to finish writing this damn thing. Still: The Contest! Total blast. Here’s hoping it does get renewed for a second season in 2016.

Eliot and Josh

We held the going-away party (at The Scratcher, duh) two weeks ago on the night before Josh Albertson‘s last day at Vox Media. But it isn’t until close of business today when Eliot Shepard exits the Vox office for the last time that they’ll both stride off into the sweet summer fields of not-Midtown NYC. Which is awesome for them, though sad for me.

Working with people for a decade is intense. Working that long with people you’ve basically known forever, I don’t even have the word for it, though I do have plenty of memories. In 2004, when I made a list of 50 names for a website I was starting and emailed Eliot asking for feedback and he emailed right back: “Curbed is the only good name on that list.” In 2005, when Josh became the first non-me person to blog for Curbed, before he moved to Michigan for a few years and subsequently took over, uh, the entire business side of the company. The downs of the 2008 recession, when everything we’d built teetered on the brink, and the climb out of that to the acquisition by Vox in late 2013. And everything in between. A lot of days.

I loved every minute of working with the Curbed management team (seen reunited above outside The Scratcher). Haha, of course I didn’t. Plenty of sharp disagreements, the occasional fight. But we always fought through it out the other side, and we were better for the honesty — and for dealing with it. I would have built nothing without them.

It says everything about Eliot and Josh that not only current staffers but a whole bunch of longtime alums of Curbed.com LLC came to The Scratcher to bid them farewell. Squint and you can see the tears in all our eyes. (Except Eliot. He’s just blinking weird.)

Fair winds and following seas, boys. Let’s meet back up a little further on down the line.

Curbed team past and present sending Josh and Eliot off in style tonight. Yearbook photo by @nicksolares

A photo posted by Lockhart Steele (@lock) on

Eater’s The Contest

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I love stunts. And, delightfully for folks like me that share that love, Eater’s latest stunt is shaping up as an all-time classic. It’s called The Contest — hashtag #thecontest — and it’s part of Eater’s Cheap Eats Week 2015, which kicks off today across all Eater sites. But it’s only New York City that gets to participate in The Contest.

The gist: each participant — and there are a dozen Eater/Vox folks playing, plus anyone in the general public who wants to get in on the fun — has $10 total to spend each day on Cheap Eats out and about in the five boroughs. No home cooking is allowed. Plenty of alcohol is allowed. Check out the insanely specific rules, and the Eater editors’ report on their Day One breakfast and lunches.

Eater Editor-in-Chief Amanda Kludt asked me to judge The Contest, and honor which I accepted, only later to learn that I was the second choice. Regardless, I kicked off my judging duties a tweetstorm about it this afternoon:

Originally, Amanda and I thought judging would take place on a daily basis, but seeing how The Contest is playing out on Day 1, it’s clear that some contestants are making week-long themes a cornerstone of their Contest strategy. There’s no great way to judge that day-by-day. So: The Contest will end at 11:59pm on Friday, and I’ll spend the weekend judging, likely with a secret special guest co-judge, with the scoring and winners revealed on Eater NY next Monday.

Meantime, follow along on Eater NY, on Twitter and, perhaps most crucially, on Instagram. #thecontest

Fare Thee Well

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When the Grateful Dead announced they were planning three final, once-and-forever farewell shows in Chicago over July 4 weekend, with Trey Anastasio on guitar, I knew I had to be there. Except I couldn’t: I’d made July 4 weekend plans with my family and going back on that wasn’t an option.

When the Dead announced a few months later that they were adding two shows to the start of the run, dubbed Fare Thee Well, at the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, CA, I had a second chance. And so it was that, fresh off a plane from France, I hopped one to the Bay Area and rendezvoused with Meredith, Daryl, and Company for two nights of music. Observations, in no particular order:

1) Went into the shows with no particular expectations around the music, which is always useful and a good trick for having a great time. The shows proved much stronger than whatever it was I didn’t expect.

2) The lot scene around the stadium — Shakedown, in Dead parlance — was weak by any standard. The Levis Stadium staff relegated any fun to the outer outer lots, which we found on both nights and enjoyed a chill stroll through. Festival atmosphere absent, however.

3) Vibe inside the shows, by contrast, was incredible. There’s something about stadium shows and 70,000 people all overjoyed to be in the same place for the same purpose. I saw three Dead shows in the Jerry Garcia era, the last two in the summer of 1994 at Shoreline Amphitheater, when I lived in Berkeley for the summer and interned at the late great Mondo 2000. The energy at Shoreline was similar to that at Levis; the second night at Shoreline, wandering the venue’s massive lawn, I came up with the idea to write a book about Phish. A year later, with the help of my friend Andy Bernstein and his besties Larry Chasnoff and Brian Celentano, that idea became The Pharmer’s Almanac. (Bringing it all full circle, on Sunday at Fare Thee Well I spent setbreak with Andy, who was there overseeing a giant charity auction on behalf of Headcount, the voter’s rights/advocacy organization he runs. Amazing.)

4) Everyone thought Trey’s addition to the Dead’s lineup would divide the fans, but everyone ended up with the same take: that Trey had done his homework and knew the Dead’s catalog inside and out. Saturday night’s show, a clear tribute to the Bay Area where the Dead made their bones, featured only songs written before 1970 and markedly restrained playing from Trey. The second night, with a setlist far less interesting on paper, proved the better show, with Trey stepping forward and the band sounding like a band that had played together for years. Surprise highlight: Trey’s jam in Hell in a Bucket, and Bobby Weir’s failed attempts to cut it short. High comedy.

5) Yet all anyone really wanted to talk about was The Rainbow. It bloomed over the stadium during the first set on Saturday night, spawning references to Jerry’s magic and the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling the day before. Until the next day, when Billboard earnestly reported that the rainbow was a $50,000 special effect paid for by the band. It wasn’t, of course, but we got a delightful Snopes debunking out of it, plus many Lols. As one member of our group observed, “If the rainbow cost $50 grand, how much extra did they spend on the sunset?”

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Thank you for a real good time.

Vine Stardom

Besides the Uber mishegas, the other unexpected bit of fun I had in Cannes involved Vine, Twitter’s six-second video platform. Our first night on the town, I met Rob Fishman. Rob runs Niche, a talent agency that connects Vine (and other social media) stars to advertisers that recently sold to Twitter in a very nice deal for a company only 18 months old. I was only ambiently aware of Niche before meeting Rob, so it was fascinating to learn about the business, and to hear about the gaggle of Vine stars they’d brought to Cannes.

My last night in town, Trei, Jonathan, and I decided to get off the beaten path and have dinner at Côté Jardin, a French restaurant on the edge of town. We were sitting in the garden, enjoying a bottle of rosé, when Rob rolled in followed by his coterie of Vine stars. The experience didn’t turn interactive until I went to the bathroom later in the meal and, on the way back to the table, got drafted by Sara Hopkins (700k Vine followers) and Robby Ayala (3.3 million Vine followers) to appear as an extra in a Vine they were crafting.

After shooting it (in one take), Sara returned to her table where she edited and posted the Vine. Within 12 hours, it had 2 million loops (Vine parlance for views); it now tallies nearly 4 million. The results of her handiwork — and my background appearance — can be experienced above.

I haven’t been a big follower of Vine, but as I got into the content of the Vine stars over the next day, it became obvious that what I think Trei observed to me — that Vine is basically a platform for Three Stooges-type slapstick — was right on. The whole experience, especially the speed with which the idea for the Vine was conceptualized and then published, reminded me a lot of blogging. For me, it felt great to master another social platform: 4 million loops and counting, thank you very much.