Photo: James Keivom/New York Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Gael Greene, who died this week at the age of 88, and who served as the original restaurant critic for New York for four decades beginning in 1968 (the year of the magazine’s inception), became famous, during the course of her long and influential career, for many things. She was famous for her elaborate hat collection, which she used as both a trademark and a kind joking disguise as she made her rounds through restaurants around town. She was famous for a kind of glamorous hauteur, which the bedraggled dining critics of today, with their furtive TikTok feeds and constantly buzzing phones, can only imagine. She was famous for her taste, which was considerable, and her work in the restaurant community (she was a founder 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 reputations she helped to make.
But Gael was most famous, to journalists like me and old-guard members of our staff here at New York, for her writing, which was 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 her stints at the New York Post and turning out a blizzard of freelance work, Clay Felker spotted her talent and eventually brought her in as a founding member of the rambunctious, self-made group of talented misfits and cranks who constituted the original staff of New York.
In her early writing, especially, you can hear echoes of this group — the competitive noisy spunkiness of a sharp-elbowed reporter like Jimmy Breslin; Nora Ephron’s sense of the city’s endlessly amusing cultural comedy; and Tom Wolfe’s flair for the kind of elaborately theatrical descriptions that brought the stodgy, mannered world on which she was reporting into vivid Technicolor relief.
Like many women of her generation who were trying to make their mark in what was mostly a stodgy gentleman’s world, Gael on the page stood out for her energy and its fearless style: She was the first big-city critic to take her eyes off the tedious procession of soufflés and canapés that crossed her plates to report on restaurants the way New Yorkers have always tended to see them: as an extension of social status and of the city’s culture at large. She wrote about where gangsters liked to dine downtown (“Luna’s at 112 Mulberry has a fine old tradition of three star raids,” she wrote in a piece called “The Mafia Guide to Dining Out”); what members of the jet set wore when they went out on the town; and which places to avoid should you wish to be considered part of that jet set, such as the old Colony, where lunch in the stuffy dining room, she wrote, was “like lunch at Forest Lawn (Cemetery), except that here the flowers are mostly plastic.”
Restaurant critics don’t tend to mingle together much as a rule, especially when they’re working, and Gael was working until not very long ago, as a critic for different outlets around town and on her “Insatiable Critic” website, which is a kind of grab bag of her various passions down through the years. I’ve written before about our lunch together at the now-vanished French restaurant Alain Ducasse, where she kindly invited me when the magazine hired me, long ago, to do her job. She had a reputation for a kind of tough abrasiveness, but I never saw that, and years later she asked me to join her and some friends at a venerable, now also vanished Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side. The banquet-style dinner was served at a large round table, and as one course proceeded to another, she would push the lazy Susan around and take little bites of dumpling and roast duck. She asked me if I was writing about anything else besides food, and when I said “No, not really,” she shook her head. She talked about meals she remembered and about her other great literary passion, which was erotic fiction (she wrote many more books about sex than about food). When I told her that it sounded like she’d had much more fun on the job than I ever did, she smiled. “Oh, it was such a wonderful time,” she said.