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Photo by Piotr Redlinsky for The New York Times
Photo by Piotr Redlinsky for The New York Times

From the Driver’s Seat: NYT Restaurant Reviews Unmasked (Plus Falafel)

Photo by Piotr Redlinsky for The New York Times

“I know where you can find the best bites,” the blonde half of a stylish couple I’d picked up on Maiden Lane last Sunday said, “At my husband’s restaurant.”

I was too focused on saying a silent prayer as I squeezed the taxi between a double parked car and some scaffolding to look in the rear view mirror.

“What’s the restaurant?” I said, once we made it to Church St., “What kind of food?”

“Casa Lever,” the wife said.

“Italian,” the husband said, “Northern Italian.”

“It’s soooooooo good,” the wife said, “It’s been written up in The New York Times.”

They were surprised that I hadn’t heard of Casa Lever – which had earned two stars from Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton – or its collection of original Andy Warhol silkscreens.

I asked the husband, who manages the restaurant, about the experience of being reviewed. What he told me would have surprised me if I hadn’t read Ruth Reichl and Mimi Sheraton’s memoirs.

In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl explains the lengths she had to go to – wig shopping included – to preserve her anonymity when she ate at the restaurants she reviewed for the Times. In Eating My Words, Sheraton outlined all of the ways that restaurants change their approach once they recognize a food critic (making sure the choicest cuts of meat are used, discarding dishes until they’re cooked to perfection, etc.).

“We had Sam Sifton’s picture pasted all over the restaurant,” my passenger said, “I recognized him right away. He came four times. I knew it was him every time.”

Once he’d detected Sifton’s presence, he put everyone in the restaurant on high alert.

“I knew every single thing that he ordered,” he said, “I knew everything was good. But I couldn’t tell what he thought.”

In the end, the husband was happy with the review:

“HERE now is a new Italian restaurant of the Manhattan old school, built for socialites and those who finance them, staffed by handsome, rakish men with huge wristwatches. It’s the sort of place where in the movie, based on a novel as yet unwritten by Dana Vachon, you might cast Anne Hathaway as the lead and Diane Keaton as her mom. You’re welcome, too. For all this, Casa Lever is a deeply likable restaurant. It’s very New York.”

“It was a good review,” he said, “Really funny and well-written. If he’d given us three stars, that would have been too much pressure. People would have expected too much. This way, it’s perfect.”

Since the review came out in January, the restaurant has been packed (“I can’t even get a table there,” the wife said.). I was happy for them, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of experience an unrecognizable plebeian might have at Casa Lever. If all of Sifton’s dishes had been doctored with extra care on his every visit, how valid was his review for the rest of us?

Despite what I knew about the nature of Times restaurant reviewing thanks to Reichl and Sheraton, I couldn’t believe that Sifton was being recognized. If his picture is plastered all over the kitchens of restaurants all over New York, how much of his beautifully written, metaphor-driven reviews can we actually believe?

After dropping off the lovely couple in Chelsea, I pondered this question and made a beeline to Port Authority to pick up another passenger, trying to ignore the insistent sounds my stomach had started making when the wife raved about Casa Lever’s seared scallops with white asparagus and black truffles.

An unassuming oasis next to the taxi stand on 8th. & 39th St.

When I pulled up at the end of the line of cabs at 8th Avenue and 39th St., I looked to my left and noticed a place I’d driven by close to a hundred times and never seen: Pick-a-Pita.

Months ago, I’d walked past Pick-a-Pita when it was closed on a Saturday (it’s kosher), noted the positive review from Midtown Lunch pasted on the wall, and vowed to return. Naturally, I was oblivious to the fact that it was right next to a taxi stand.

I was well aware of that fact when I caught sight of the restaurant’s blue and yellow sign last Sunday. I turned on my off duty light and wandered inside.

Three customers were ahead of me, and I watched as the lightning quick counter master stuffed their falafels with whatever combination of goodies they wanted from the topping bar: sautéed red cabbage, marinated cucumbers, roasted eggplant, taboule, hummus, tahini, pickles, hot peppers, tomato, and onions with fresh parsley.

I followed their lead and ordered a falafel (fried to order) with roasted eggplant, cucumbers, hot peppers, red cabbage and hummus and tahini and happily forked over $5.50 before I tore into the sandwich, which demanded two hands.

I knew my hunger wasn’t the only reason it tasted great: the hummus was probably the best I’ve had outside of Hummus Place, the falafel were light and flavorful, and all of the vegetables tasted as if they’d just been chopped. The roasted eggplant – sweet and smoky – was something I’d never tried on a falafel before. Now I’ll miss it when it’s not there.

As I was leaving the restaurant, I checked out the reviews mounted near the doorway, including one from the Times. In his “Best Dishes of 2009” article, Sam Sifton called out the spicy chicken shawarma at Pick-a-Pita. I think we can trust him on this one.

Pick-a-PitaMap it
601 8th Ave. between 39th St. and 40th St. – Midtown West/Hell’s Kitchen
Tel. (212) 730-7482‎
Open: Mon–Thu 11am–9pm; Fri 11am–7pm; Sun 10am–9:30pm (closed Saturdays)
Credit cards accepted
Falafel pita: $5.50
Shawerma pita: $8.00

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  1. You haven’t tasted my MIL’s hummus. Hers is the VERY best! I’ve tried to make it myself many times, but I never quite get it right. There is definitely a special art to it. Nevertheless, this place sounds delicious and reasonably priced. Glad you found it!

    • I’ve heard that in Lebanon a cook is judged based on her ability to make hummus, so your mother-in-law must be quite the kitchen goddess. Wish I could taste it…