Q&A with Pete Wells, New York Times

The incognito restaurant critic tells Tina Nielsen how he has passed the time during lockdown and how he sees the future for restaurants in his city

What does a restaurant critic with no restaurants to visit do?

I have been trying to write every week, so I am still working but it is completely different work. Before, I always knew every week what I would be writing, I just had to pick the restaurant, now I have to find stories. So, I have become a regular reporter, even when I write with a bit of opinion.

The last review before the shutdown was on 10 March of Pastrami Masters. I called them a month after and they said thank you for the review – people came for two days and then it all shut down.

How has the New York restaurant community dealt with Covid-19?

I have written articles about all the different ways the sector has come up with new ways to make some money. I did one piece about restaurant suppliers selling direct to consumers and another about restaurants turning part of their dining room into grocery stores.

How has the city’s restaurant scene changed after reopening?

I am interested in this experiment with outdoor dining. We can’t have indoor dining yet, so restaurants are able to easily apply for license to put tables on the sidewalk or on the street in parking spaces. There is talk of keeping this, but the authorities are waiting to see how it works as an experiment.

If there is a car accident it could change public opinion really quickly, so they are seeing how it goes, but there is some thought that it could be a permanent thing and play into a larger goal which is rethinking out streets.

Is it too soon to tell what the impact on restaurants will be?

Yes, it is too soon but there will be a massive impact. A lot of places won’t reopen, a lot of employees will find a new line of work or move outside the city once their benefits run out. If you are unemployed or underemployed there are nicer places to be. So, we may lose a substantial chunk of people who have particular restaurant skills, such as waiting tables, cooking and managing restaurants.

I do think it will be huge but I don’t know when it will end. We don’t know when the bleeding will stop.

Are there any lessons to learn from this time?

I think there definitely is. One thing for sure is that a lot of operators who can diversify their revenue will try to do that. You are very vulnerable if 95-100% comes from food and drink.

Tina Nielsen

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