Replacing Bruni? No one.
Shallots mentioned this before, but I thought it deserved a thread of its own. If I had to put money on who would replace Frank Bruni, I'd put my money on "No one." The game of "Spot the Masked Critic as He Flits from Restaurant to Restaurant Sprinkling Stars" is a fun one, but it's an expensive game that's not worth the effort anymore and I think the New York Times is going to throw in the towel and give their featured review slot (with stars) to a rotating cast of their regular staff members and/or perma-lancers.
Bruni presided over a time when the food reviewing business changed and suddenly everyone can blog about a restaurant, or take their gripes and glee over to Yelp! These days the idea of a single lead restaurant critic weighing in as the official opinion of the New York Times regarding restaurants seems hopelessly retrograde. Add to that the fact that none of the rest of the Times works this way. There is no more lead film reviewer, or lead theater critic, or lead book reviewer. There are a handful of staff writers who handle the reviewing for film, books and the occasional contributing editor. Some of them are bigger names than others, but none of them is the head or lead critic whose opinion out-weighs the others.
Also, can the New York Times, hopelessly mired in debt and gushing red ink, actually afford to pay someone new a high 5 or low 6 digit salary to turn in one review and the odd article and blog posting every week? And think of the expensed meals on top of that? Reviewing restaurants is expensive. And at the end of the day who gets more out of the equation, the reviewer or the paper? Frank Bruni and Ruth Reichl worked long and hard for the NY Times as food critics and they left with massive profiles that have resulted (or will result) in books and speaking gigs forever. The Times is left looking to find someone else to pay who can become a food world celebrity on their dime and can then leave for a lucrative career. It's just not worth it.
I think the Times is going to find a way to get more out of their staffers and perma-lancers, and who wouldn't want to get to write a starred, main review each month or every other month? The review will still have the Times stamp of approval, it will still award stars, it just won't have one individual linked to it.
Good points, LES, but you underestimate how seriously the Times takes itself. They love the cloak-and-dagger business and the power and prestige they still command in the NYC restaurant world. Also, your economics are off: Bruni was definitely in the 6 figure range but then so are HUNDREDS of people at the Times. Hi-five-figures is starting pay there, as it is at most NYC companies. Also, they can write off the reviewing expenses, so the restaurant reviewer post is well worth maintaining, even as their overall business slides. They will just probably go in house, like they did with Bruni.