Photo: James Keivom/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Gael Greene, who passed away today at the age of 88and who was the first restaurant critic for New York for four decades from 1968 (the year the magazine was founded), became famous, over her long and influential career, for many things. She was famous for her elaborate collection of hats, which she used both as a trademark and as a kindly joking disguise when she toured restaurants in the city. She was famous for a kind of glamorous height, which today’s scruffy restaurant critics, with their stealthy TikTok feeds and constantly buzzing phones, can only imagine. She was famous for her taste, which was considerable, and her work in the restaurant business (she was one of the founders of Citymeals on Wheels). And she was famous for her intimacies – with Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Elvis himself, and even with chefs whose restaurants she reviewed and the reputations she helped build.
But Gael was most famous, for journalists like me and the old guard of our staff here at New Yorkk, for her writing, often overshadowed by what she liked to call the more “notorious” aspects of her career. She came to the big city from suburban Detroit. After his visits to New York Job and producing a blizzard of freelance work, Clay Felker spotted her talent and eventually brought her in as a founding member of the rambunctious, self-taught group of talented misfits and cranks who made up the original staff of New York.
In his early writings, in particular, you can hear echoes of this group – the loud, competitive courage of a sharp-elbowed journalist like Jimmy Breslin; Nora Ephron’s sense of the city’s endlessly fun cultural comedy; and Tom Wolfe’s flair for the kind of elaborate theatrical descriptions that brought the heavy, mannered world she was reporting on in vivid Technicolor relief.
Like many women of her generation trying to find a place in what was mostly a world of indigent gentlemen, Gael on the Page was noted for her energy and fearless style: she was the first critic of a big city to look away from the tedious procession of soufflés and canapes that crossed his plates to report on restaurants as New Yorkers have always tended to see them: as an extension of the social status and culture of the city at large . She wrote about where mobsters liked to dine downtown (“Luna’s at 112 Mulberry has a nice old tradition of three-star raids,” she wrote in an article titled “The Mafia Guide to Dining Out “); what the members of the jet set wore when they went out on the town; and what places to avoid if you want to be considered part of that jet set, like the Old Colony, where lunch in the stuffy dining room, she writes, was “like lunch at Forest Lawn (cemetery), except that here the flowers are mainly plastic.
Typically, restaurant reviewers don’t tend to mix together much, especially when working, and Gael used to work until not too long ago, as a reviewer for various outlets in the city and on his “Insatiable Critic” website, which is kind of a catch-all of his various passions over the years. I’ve written before about our lunch together at the now defunct French restaurant Alain Ducasse, where she kindly invited me when the magazine hired me long ago to do its job. She had a reputation for a kind of tough aggression, but I never saw that, and years later she asked me to join her and some friends at a venerable Chinese restaurant today. now also missing, from the Upper West Side. The banquet-style dinner was served at a large round table, and from course to course she pushed past the lazy Susan and took small bites of dumpling and roast duck. She asked me if I was writing about anything other than food, and when I said, “No, not really,” she shook her head. She talked about the meals she remembered and her other big literary passion, which was erotic fiction (she wrote far more books about sex than about food). When I told her that she seemed to have had a lot more fun at work than me, she smiled. “Oh, it was such a wonderful time,” she said.
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