How restaurant critic Hannah Goldfield is navigating her work amid the pandemic
The New Yorker food writer takes Jewish Insider on a culinary tour of the Rockaways
On an afternoon in late July, Hannah Goldfield, the food critic for The New Yorker, was in Rockaway Beach ordering a bag of burgers and fries from the counter at Ripper’s, a popular boardwalk concession stand. It was a stiflingly humid day, but Goldfield appeared to be in high spirits as she sat down on a nearby bench, clutching her bounty.
“I like the sack,” Goldfield said contentedly, wearing a Russ & Daughters cap that matched her blue pants. “I feel like I’m at the diner in the Archie comics.”
It was no surprise that Goldfield was feeling nostalgic for another era. Since mid-March, when the city went into lockdown, she has had to learn to adapt to the reality of being a restaurant reviewer with virtually no restaurants to go to.
“It’s changed my job,” Goldfield told Jewish Insider, noting that she wouldn’t dare ding a restaurant now because the industry is already struggling enough as it is. “I feel like I’m not a critic all of a sudden.”
Indeed, Goldfield’s “Tables for Two” reviews since the shutdown — 17 in all — read like a bleak yet pragmatic culinary chronicle of the coronavirus pandemic: reportorial dispatches from a food writer isolated, for the most part, in her Brooklyn apartment, surviving on takeout and delivery from an array of establishments doing their best, like everyone else, to eke by.
As the city opens up, Goldfield has been cautiously venturing out. In mid-May, she wrote about buying groceries from a Bedford-Stuyvesant restaurant pivoting to a different business strategy. A couple of weeks later, Goldfield went to a drive-in movie at Astoria’s Bel Aire Diner, munching on plump mozzarella sticks and cheeseburger sliders.
More recently, she brought a meal to “a socially distanced salon” in Prospect Park. “The past few months have been, you could say, no picnic,” Goldfield wrote. “Might I suggest… a picnic?”
Still, while Goldfield has been reacquainting herself with the city’s food scene post-lockdown, she has resolved not to eat out at a sit-down restaurant, an option available to cooped-up New Yorkers since June 22.
“My whole life revolves around restaurants, and yet I feel that I can survive without eating at a restaurant and having a server put themselves at risk,” Goldfield reasoned. “I get that restaurants really need it, but I also have seen some restaurants be able to survive, at least for now, on other forms like take-out or doing creative, unexpected things.”
Goldfield isn’t the only critic who has made the decision to avoid sidewalk dining. Eater’s Ryan Sutton, who contracted COVID-19 in March, argued in a recent essay that dining out just isn’t worth the risk in light of the health concerns. Yet some reviewers have braved the elements, like Pete Wells, the intrepid restaurant critic for The New York Times who has been pounding the pavement since the first day the city said it was alright to do so.
“I’m a restaurant critic and I want to describe the situation out there, particularly for readers who aren’t ready yet to come outside,” he told JI in an email. “They still deserve to know what it’s like. I won’t take serious personal risks to do that, and wouldn’t put restaurant staff at serious risk, but again, I’m comfortable with where the numbers in New York are now and what the experts are telling us.”
Wells is also curious whether restaurants are still capable of casting a spell, as the best ones did before the pandemic. “Can we have a positive experience with servers knowing that we are all facing the same reality, to some extent?” he mused. “I think it might be possible. I do wish more restaurants would post rules for diners. I suspect they are afraid to break the state of enchantment. They shouldn’t be.”
Goldfield wonders about such questions, too, but she is by no means as sanguine as Wells. “I’ve found enough fun, interesting ways to eat without doing that,” she said, taking a bite from her cheeseburger, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
She was also pleased that a reporter had joined her on her excursion to the Rockaways, if only because she misses her old routine.
Restaurant reviewing, like all criticism, is a lonely pursuit, but it is also a uniquely social one: most critics rely on a trusted rotation of dining companions who can help order menu items without drawing undue attention to the table.
“I always bring people with me,” said Goldfield, who had purchased two compact cheeseburgers, a crispy veggie burger, decadent cheese fries and a bag of plain French fries seasoned with some sort of chili powder — all of which she generously shared with her interviewer.
“Otherwise,” she said, “I can’t eat enough.”
Goldfield, who is 33, began reviewing restaurants full-time for The New Yorker in 2018. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition, yet she took a somewhat circuitous route to achieving her goal. Born and raised in New Haven, Conn., Goldfield decided early on in her childhood that she wanted to be a food critic after watching “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” the romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts as a lovelorn restaurant reviewer.
“It’s such a minor plot point, it only comes up in the first, like, 10 minutes of the movie, which is a scene of her eating out at a restaurant,” Goldfield explained. “It’s incredibly unrealistic — or maybe not, maybe it’s how restaurant critics used to function — but everyone knows she’s there, everyone in the kitchen is crowded around a porthole window looking out, like, ‘What does she think? What does she think?’ And she’s like, I’m calling it ‘pointedly restrained.’”
“For whatever reason,” Goldfield recalled, “I seized on this as a 10-year-old, and I was like, that must be my job.”
Goldfield had already developed a sophisticated palate thanks to her father’s passion for whipping up Italian, Chinese and Indian dishes, but restaurants were another thing entirely.
“I found restaurants to be these intensely romantic and also kind of forbidden places because we never ate out when I was a kid,” she said. “Going out was a very rare, special-occasion kind of thing.”
With the encouragement of her parents, Goldfield began reading Ruth Reichl, who reviewed restaurants for the Times from 1993 to 1999, developing a new and ecumenical style of food criticism that wasn’t beholden only to the city’s fine-dining establishments. “It was very good timing,” Goldfield told JI, “because it was a woman, and that made it seem like a job that I could do.”
“I became obsessed with her,” Goldfield added. “My answer to the question of what do you want to be when you grow up was ‘Ruth Reichl.’”
In high school, Goldfield wrote one restaurant review of a kosher meat market for the New Haven Advocate, a now-defunct alt-weekly. “It was really good,” she said of the food.
But in New York, where she attended Columbia University, Goldfield met an intimidating array of aspiring writers who were just like her, and tempered her expectations. “I wanted it too badly,” she said.
She took a job, right out of college, as a fact-checker at The New Yorker, a position she held for six years. During that time, Goldfield got the chance to file the occasional restaurant review for the “Tables for Two” column, which was then shared by a rotation of writers and runs in the Goings on About Town section. She left the publication in 2015, taking a staff editor position at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
Goldfield moved on from the Times after a year and a half, when she signed a contract with New York magazine’s food vertical, Grub Street, to contribute rankings of the “absolute best restaurants” in the city.
The gig had its challenges. “You have to find a way to describe the same dish, like, 10 different ways in one list, and that part was just mind-numbing,” said Goldfield, who wrote about all sorts of cuisines, such as pork buns, Cobb salad, Sichuan food and arepas.
“I remember one day where I literally ate 10 different versions of pad thai alone,” she recalled. “I was walking around, like, Elmhurst and just taking a bite of pad thai, getting it to go, and sometimes throwing it out when I got outside. I was like, I can’t take home 10 containers of pad thai. I once told my parents that I threw away leftovers, and they were like, ‘What?’”
It was also good practice for Goldfield, who was getting an immersive education in the city’s extensive restaurant network. Though she was well-primed for the challenge, thanks to her father’s adventurous cooking, Goldfield’s on-the-ground research and reporting put her on even more solid footing when she returned to The New Yorker two years ago to take on her current role as the magazine’s sole food critic.
Since then, Goldfield has continued on in the spirit of Reichl, by no means limiting her coverage to the city’s swankier establishments. Her colleagues have appreciated her approach.
“She doesn’t favor one sort of restaurant or another,” said Calvin Trillin, a longtime New Yorker contributor who has written some of the magazine’s most canonical food pieces, and got to know Goldfield when she worked as his regular fact-checker during her first stint at the magazine. “There are some reviewers who basically do the white-tablecloth places and nothing else.”
“Hannah Goldfield sees the world of food voraciously,” David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, told JI in an enthusiastic email. “She is hungry to explore every taste, every cultural corner, and learn not only where to get something good to eat but to know more about the city and the greater world. She’s a delightful writer and a very smart one, and I’ve never been disappointed, as an eater, or as a New Yorker, when she points in one direction and says, ‘Go here: You’ll love this.’ I invariably do.”
The Rockaways expedition was a compromise of sorts. While Goldfield still won’t go to restaurants, she has been to the beach with her husband, Joshua Stern, and their 14-month-old son. The experience felt reasonably safe to her, and so she had it in mind to give her readers a sense of the food options available to them down by the shore.
“I thought it would be fun to do a survey,” she explained, “less a review than a tour or a diary entry about what it’s like right now to eat at the Rockaways.”
Goldfield finished her cheeseburger and wandered over to another restaurant to inquire about takeout. At first, she was underwhelmed by the menu, which included several hot dishes that one might want to avoid on a sweltering day. “I guess you can take pizza to the beach,” she said aloud to herself. “But not in the middle of the day.”
Still, she decided to go for it, with the caveat that she might not write about the restaurant if it didn’t appeal to her. Walking back to the boardwalk with a margherita pizza, an order of fish ceviche and a corn and tomato dish, Goldfield was already underwhelmed by the service.
When she’d asked a restaurant employee for plastic utensils, all they had to give her were chopsticks. “How are you supposed to eat this food with chopsticks?” she said. “It’s crazy.”
Taking a seat on another bench, Goldfield pulled out the container of corn and tomatoes and was dismayed that it wasn’t cold.
“This is not what you want to eat on the beach on a hot day,” she said, staring blankly at the open container. “It’s hot and creamy, and I’m getting a vaguely fishy flavor in a way that I don’t love. No thanks.”
Things were not going as planned. “I sort of panicked,” she told JI. “I feel like I got overwhelmed by the menu and whether I’m even going to write about this place.”
But if Goldfield seemed disappointed by the meal, she perked up when she spotted a friend casually riding by on an L.L. Bean bicycle. It was Jazmine Hughes, a story editor for The New York Times Magazine who was vacationing on a houseboat in a nearby marina.
“Oh my God, Jazmine!” Goldfield yelled.
They hadn’t seen each other in some time, so Hughes stopped to chat for a few minutes and catch up. “How are you?” Hughes asked. “I’m fine, really hot,” Goldfield said. “I’m tired, but I’m fine.”
“How’s my son?” Hughes joked. “He’s really good,” Goldfield said. “He’s the best.”
Before Hughes cycled on, Goldfield, who wasn’t planning to finish any more of the food in front of her, offered the rest to her friend.
Hughes was happy to take the leftovers.
“Thank you so much,” Goldfield told her, grateful for the chance to share food with a companion, even under such circumstances. “You don’t understand what a gift this is to me.”