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Molly O’Neill, a restaurant reviewer who saw a change coming, dies at age 66

The onetime reviewer for The New York Times showed she wouldn't be swayed by reputation or tradition.

Molly O’Neill, who chronicled the transformation of fine dining in the 1980s and ’90s as a reviewer for The New York Times, died Sunday after a long bout with cancer. She was 66, according to a report by her former employer. 

O’Neill had worked as a chef before landing the reviewer’s job at the Times, following in the wake of such celebrated critics as Craig Claiborne and Mimi Sheraton. The job provided the Cincinnati native with an influential voice, not only for restaurants angling for a prized two- or three-star review, but for the industry as a whole. Operators far from the city would note her assessments of newcomers challenging the stuffy traditions of fine dining, and O’Neill showed she cared more for a satisfying meal than a mindless adherence to tradition. She helped to loosen conventions and added encouragement to the rise of American cuisine, a culinary approach built on using local ingredients in traditional regional preparations.

Her disregard for revered traditions and the inflated egos of iconic restaurateurs would sometimes land her in controversy, as when a review suggested that some of the city’s most celebrated eateries were relying on reputation more than execution. Local restaurateur Alan Stillman took out a full-page ad in the Times in response to one of her reviews, suggesting the paper not bite the hand of the restaurateurs who were buying ads in its food section.

In a typical show of her disregard for the status quo, O’Neill famously wrote in a Times story that salsa had supplanted catsup as the true American condiment.

O’Neill also proved a tart observer of family foibles and American peculiarities, such as its deification of sports figures. She had grown up with one, Paul O’Neill of the New York Yankees, and she greeted his arrival in New York with a story in the Times about the amusing weirdness of being the only sister of five brothers who were crazy about baseball. 

O’Neill’s tenure at the Times was short compared with the reviewing careers of her celebrated predecessors. She wrote several books and provided seminars of sorts on writing.

She was diagnosed with cancer several years ago and underwent a liver transplant that she reported had wiped out her savings. A GoFundMe page was set up by one of her close friends in 2017 to help defray medical costs. 

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