The Restaurant Critic, Unmasked
If you don’t know me, you don’t own me.
THE OWNER APPROACHED AS IF I WERE A TIGER LOOSED INSIDE HIS RESTAURANT. Pleasantries first—how’s your meal, anything I can get you—then he swooped in for the kill. “Aren’t you…Kathryn Robinson?” he asked, voice hushed in what he hoped was a charming bid for collusion. “The restaurant critic Kathryn Robinson?”
This was a first. In my nearly three decades of restaurant reviewing I’d been sprayed with sparkling wine, tearfully blamed for the closure of a restaurant, food poisoned, sworn at, and threatened with death. But I’d never been made: not to my face, anyway.
I reddened, gagged a little—here was Failure, served up hot and steaming on a silver platter. Restaurant critics rely on anonymity the way fish depend on water. It’s the only medium in which we can operate; the reason we refuse party invites and free meals and disguise our credit card and reservation names, and sometimes—I’m lookin’ at you, Ruth Reichl—even ourselves. That New York Times critic famously rotated through a number of bewigged personas after she discovered restaurants had posted her photo in their kitchens.
Anonymity is vital. We’d get special treatment if restaurateurs knew who we were, and special treatment would deny us the ordinary experience of the ordinary diner.
This old-guard standard, however, is under siege. One front is the blogosphere, where a number of bloggers labor unpaid, some accepting free meals from restaurants. (They’re the ones photographing their food.) Throw in Yelp and its ilk of crowd-sourced review websites—and suddenly diners looking for trusty consumer assessments find themselves in a bizarro world where they don’t know who’s doing the commenting, or what allegiances they hold.
Certainly there are culinarily savvy, unbiased Yelpers—mixed in with the bitter laid-off line cooks, Applebee’s regulars, and drunk people. Consequently, chefs loathe Yelp, damning any medium that allows Joe Q. Public to fire off a flame, unbound by the gentleman’s code that keeps the professional critics from reviewing any restaurant in its first month of business, or from letting a vegan dis a steak house. Mostly, say chefs, Yelp allows these commentators to shoot off their mouths from behind a veil of anonymity, enabling them to do real damage without a whiff of accountability.
Ack! I thought, as the restaurateur now holding me hostage methodically listed the virtues of his tuna crudo. Is the crowd’s mask of anonymity any different than mine?
Hmm. Well, surely the fact that I am a seasoned reporter, a ridiculously experienced diner, and bound by the aforementioned professional’s code, counts for something. We professional critics are far from perfect, but read us for a while and you learn our pet likes and predictable slants. A reader once called to tell me she loved my reviews once she discovered she would like all the places I didn’t. I worked hard to take that as a compliment.
Restaurant criticism is a subjective business, which is why the most reliable critics deliver more by way of description than judgment. Indeed, the other major front on the war on anonymity is the mounting conviction, upheld by a certain stripe of earnest restaurateur, that judgment should be gone entirely. Their point: that critic and restaurateur need to be joining hands to promote common ideals like sustainability and fair sourcing. When you’re dining family style, around a big group table, enjoying the attentions of the chef himself—goes this argument—judgment has no place.
“Besides,” offered three different high-end restaurateurs in three separate phone calls last year: “If we learn there’s a critic in the house, do you really think there’s that much we can do to gain favor?”
I considered this as Mr. Restaurateur scurried up to ask me why I didn’t finish my gnocchi Bolognese, and didn’t I like it…and what about a glass of dessert wine?
Of course restaurateurs have methods for gaining impromptu favor—they were on pathetic parade before me right that very moment. Tell ya what, I should’ve answered those three chefs last year: I’ll dispense with that tired old “judgment” paradigm when you dispense with that tired old charging-for-meals thing.
Because at bottom, a restaurant critic is a consumer advocate, not a lobbyist for the dining industry. My confederate in the endeavor is not the chef, nor the restaurant owner—it’s my fellow diner, the one who may have limited means with which to dine, and who in any case simply wishes to dine well.
I finally puzzled out how my unmasking came to pass: My husband’s remark to a colleague about my dinner plans made its way to a friend of the chef’s. (Add to shopping list: platinum wig, Bozo nose, husband muzzle.) It’s no deal breaker; the occasional breach of anonymity is the cost of doing business in any big city as small as this one. But what continued to perplex me was why the chef didn’t just play along: leaving me alone with my illusions.
Instead he attempted to charm me, clearly aware that the moment he roped me into something like friendship, my independence would be shattered. Because that’s the ultimate problem of chef-critic familiarity: If they know me I may be compromised, but if I know them—I’m useless.