Pete Wells, PONTIFICATE, and the “21” Club

I recently published an excerpt from my new book Comfort Me with Offal, Ruth Bourdain’s Guide to Gastronomy in which I shared PONTIFICATE, the simple mnemonic device that is used by all restaurant critics when writing reviews.

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells has just published a wonderful review of the venerable “21” Club. Let’s see how PONTIFICATE works in practice for this master reviewer of restaurants:

P for Peppery

Wells goes for a classic pepper reference: "…the steak tartare that wasn’t as neatly hacked up as it might have been but did hold a properly honed edge of mustard and pepper."

O for Onomatopoeia

Though Wells does not use traditional onomatopoeia, he writes that the chicken hash sounds like a human voice: "the famous chicken hash, as creamy and agreeable as Jo Stafford’s voice."

N for Narrative point of view

Wells plays it cool and goes for the traditional first person point of view: "I ate only four things at “21” that I’d go back for with any anticipation."

T for Transportation

Restaurant critics are frequently “transported” geographically, but Wells goes for time travel here: The sense of time travel in that room was intense and not always comfortable.”

I for Illegality

Wells makes a brief reference to the “21” Club’s prohibition-era past: “Too many years, I realized in March, when another reformed speakeasy in Midtown, Bill’s Gay Nineties, went out of business.”

F for Fantasy

Not only is Wells transported through time, he almost gets lost in a time portal. The editor likely deleted any “Looper” references: “I felt the urgent need to get back to my table before a portal slammed shut and I was trapped in 1952”

I for Ice-T

Going for the Times' teen readership, Wells swaps Justin Bieber for the usual hip hop reference. Bold move: “the sommelier will blush like a sixth grader who has Justin Bieber’s autograph on her backpack.”

C for Childhood

"A sepia-toned playpen for adults, with toys on the ceiling and martinis on the checked tablecloths."

A for Avalanches

Wells eschews the usual “avalanche” or “tsunami” of flavor for a river: "the meal sails along on a river of alcohol and high spirits."

T for Teasing

Wells was either spanked as a child, reveals some fascinating adult fetishes, or both: “By some logic I didn’t follow, this led to a warning that if I didn’t behave, they were going to ask Halle Berry to spank me.”

E for Epiphany

Though Wells does not discover God at “21,” eating there is an occasion for serious personal reflection and regrets about his life chocies: “I regret all the songs I could have belted out around the piano at Bill’s Gay Nineties. I regret the nights I didn’t tune in to hear the huge mahogany doors on Danny Stiles’s Art Deco penthouse swing shut as Mr. Stiles bid all his radio listeners “Good night, dear hearts.” I regret the rides I didn’t take on Checker cabs while they still prowled the avenues.”