Mimi Sheraton, Innovative Food Critic at The New York Times, Dies at 97

Mimi Sheraton, the food writer and restaurant critic who chronicled culinary scenes in New York and around the world with a discriminating palate and deft prose that captured the nuances of haute cuisine and plumbed the mysteries of chicken soup, died on Thursday in Manhattan. She was 97.

Her death, at NYU Langone Medical Center, was confirmed by her son, Marc Falcone.

In a six-decade career, Ms. Sheraton was The New York Times’s food and restaurant critic from 1976 to 1983; worked for Vanity Fair, Time, New York, Condé Nast Traveler and other magazines; and wrote 16 books, including restaurant guides, cookbooks, memoirs and a farewell of sorts, “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die” (2015). She calculated in 2013 that she had eaten 21,170 restaurant meals professionally in 49 countries.

An adventurer with a passion for offbeat experiences, an eclectic taste for foods and the independence to defy pressures from restaurateurs and advertisers, Ms. Sheraton was the first female food critic for The Times. She pioneered reviewing-in-disguise, dining in wigs and tinted glasses, and using aliases for reservations, mostly in high-end places where people knew her from repeat visits and lavished their attentions on her.

“The longer I reviewed restaurants, the more I became convinced that the unknown customer has a completely different experience from either a valued patron or a recognized food critic,” she wrote in her memoir, “Eating My Words: An Appetite for Life” (2004). “For all practical purposes, they might as well be in different restaurants.”

Colleagues and other restaurant critics described her reviews as tough but fair and scrupulously researched. The Times required three visits to a restaurant before publishing a review; she dined six to eight times before passing judgment. For an article on deli sandwiches, she collected 104 corned beef and pastrami samples in one day to evaluate the meat and sandwich-building techniques.

Ms. Sheraton wrote a review for New York magazine in 1972 after tasting all 1,196 items in the Bloomingdale’s food department. The task took 11 months. “I brewed 97 pots of tea and turned over one bathtub just to the jars of jellies and jams,” she recalled.

Another of her reviews, based on blind tastings by several Times staff members, favored private-label liquors over popular brand names of Scotch, bourbon, rye, vodka and gin. The review ran weeks before Christmas, the busy liquor-selling season.

“I heard that two million dollars’ worth of advertising had been canceled,” Ms. Sheraton recalled in her memoir. She approached the executive editor. “I asked Abe Rosenthal if that was true. He said, ‘That’s none of your business. It was a great story.’”

Negative reviews by Ms. Sheraton generated some lawsuits, and she occasionally received angry letters from restaurateurs and diners. But they were far outnumbered by missives from those who liked her straightforward judgments. Some said her vivid culinary descriptions evoked childhood memories of kitchens and holiday dinner tables, or of travels to exotic lands.

For Times readers on Nov. 15, 1981, Ms. Sheraton caught the moods of open markets from Africa to Asia: “In Calcutta, graceful women in silken saris are colorful competition for the pyramided cones of earth-toned spices they sell in the markets. The Indian women provide a sharp contrast to the workmen in the Tsukiji wholesale fish market in Tokyo, who can be seen taking naps on the concrete platforms at 2 or 3 in the morning, curled up against giant sharks that look no less menacing for being dead. Vendors in the souks of Marrakesh, selling lemons, mint, coriander, grilled meat and nougat candy, look as if they had stepped out of biblical times.”

Ms. Sheraton often ate four meals a day, at venues ranging from pushcarts to palatial restaurants. But she usually chose little-known places with good food and dined with a few quickly recruited colleagues or friends. She paid for meals in cash. She never took notes in a restaurant but had a remarkable memory for flavors, aromas, service and ambience. After years of using a typewriter, she resisted computers for a time, dictating reviews by phone, as her civilized world turned digital.

Ms. Sheraton also reviewed foods served in schools, hospitals and prisons, and she consulted with those institutions to improve their menus. Her frequent trips abroad prompted her to write books and articles on the cuisines of Germany, France, Italy, China, Russia and Vietnam, and on markets and specialty foods.

For her book “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World” (2000), she scoured Europe, Israel and Argentina for authentic versions of the Jewish round breads sprinkled with onions and spices. She found they were no longer made in Bialystok, Poland, where the Nazis had burned to death 2,000 Jews in a synagogue in 1941. But among the diaspora of bakers, she found the best bialys on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

She was born Miriam Solomon in Brooklyn on Feb. 10, 1926, one of two children of Joseph and Beatrice (Breit) Solomon. Her father sold produce in Manhattan, and her mother was an excellent cook. Their nonkosher Jewish family talked avidly of food and cooking. For Mimi and her brother, Arthur, summers meant Lundy’s seafood in Sheepshead Bay and Nathan’s Famous hot dogs in Coney Island. She graduated from Midwood High School in 1943 and from New York University in 1947.

Her 1945 marriage to William Schlifman, who had changed his surname to Sheraton, ended in divorce in 1954. In 1955, she married Richard Falcone, a retailing executive and importer. They had one son, Marc. In addition to him, she is survived by a granddaughter. Richard Falcone died in 2014. Ms. Sheraton’s brother died in 2004.

Ms. Sheraton wrote about home furnishings for an advertising agency and for Good Housekeeping. She also worked as an interior decorator, a furnishings and food editor for Seventeen, a globe-trotting research consultant for the food services company Restaurant Associates and a freelancer whose early books included “The Seducer’s Cookbook” (1963) and “The German Cookbook” (1965).

She became a restaurant critic first for Cue magazine, then for The Village Voice and other publications. For five years she was a contributing editor and critic for New York magazine. She joined The Times in 1975 as a reporter and became a critic a year later. In recent years, she wrote for The Times and other publications about New York neighborhoods, foods in China and other subjects.

Her later books include “Is Salami and Eggs Better Than Sex?” (1985, with Alan King), “The Whole World Loves Chicken Soup: Recipes and Lore to Comfort Body and Soul” (1995) and “The New York Times Jewish Cookbook” (2002, with Linda Amster).

In her Greenwich Village townhouse, she had 2,000 cookbooks and a spacious kitchen overlooking a backyard where she grew chives, tarragon, mint, sage, rosemary and basil. And she read other restaurant critics, with whom she often disagreed.

“Well, whether they’re right or not, which means they agree with me,” she told The Times wryly in 2004, “food writers in general devote too much space to chefs’ philosophies. They’re not Picasso, after all — this is supper. So I don’t want to hear about a chef’s intentions. Call me when it’s good.”

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