Why Anonymity Matters
Restaurant critics are revealing their identities left and right. Why I’m not.
I am an anonymous restaurant critic. Have been for 30 years.
Here is what that means: With about five exceptions—the cost of having a life in the small town that is Seattle—restaurateurs and chefs don’t know me by face. Neither do hosts or servers. I reserve tables under a rotating stable of fake names. I take notes as surreptitiously as possible. I don’t photograph my food, maintain a Facebook page, report behind-the-scenes restaurant stories, accept free anything from restaurants (Seattle Met pays for my meals), or attend restaurant openings.
I keep the mystery alive for one reason: I couldn’t call myself a restaurant critic without it.
Used to be I was in great company, back under the template Craig Claiborne set from the New York Times, reviewing anonymously and critiquing independently. Ruth Reichl, a Claiborne successor and author of Garlic and Sapphires, wrote about the disguises she donned in order to not be revealed. (She was anyway.) This they did out of a commitment to critical detachment: How could they fairly judge a restaurant that was madly working to impress them?
At some point things began to change. Was it the famous 2010 reveal of longtime anonymous LA Times critic S. Irene Virbila, who was identified and photographed and outed online by a bitter recipient of one of her negative reviews? Or was it the tumbling dominoes of self-outings that began soon after—locally with Stranger critic Bethany Clement, nationally with New York Magazine critic Adam Platt, most recently at Seattle magazine with Julien Perry, a Seattle food reporter well known among restaurateurs?
The rationalizations for this paradigm shift have been many. Some of these critics had somehow—O mystery!—become so broadly known they decided to formally give up the sham. Others found themselves wanting to hold forth on food trends, for which they needed to consort with the newsmakers. Besides, some said, who needed anonymity anyway when restaurants can’t do much to change things once they realize a critic’s in the room? This claim rang loudest from the new breed of restaurant bloggers, happily out and, in many cases, very happily subsidized by the restaurants themselves.
The world had changed, came the consensus among the critics formerly known as anonymous. With the rise of cooking-contest television, celeb critics had become every bit as central to the story as celeb chefs, right? Passing the judgment had become as important—and filmable—as cooking the meal; even, for the drama it represented, more important.
At the same time there arose a sea change, subtle but powerful, within the world of rarefied, chef-driven restaurants. In these temples of gastronomy, run by high priests of tastemaking, no more was the onus on the chef to please the customer—no, now the onus was on the customer to appreciate the unique artistry of the chef. (See a few of my relevant rants, I mean thoughtful musings, here and here.) This culture of chef adoration worked its magic on critics, too. Much nobler, went this thinking, to report on the thrilling process of the pig roast, the enlightened philosophy of the pig roaster, the superiority of nose-to-tail dining, the community gathering to sup on said pig—the chef’s good intentions, in other words—than on this: Whether or not the pig dinner was worth its cost.
In this way, the very enterprise of passing judgment on restaurants came to be branded within the high priesthood as churlish, irrelevant; couldn’t we critics see that the real story here was the community coming together to roast a pig in the ancient sustainable way, yada yada yada, and therefore not subject to judgment?
Don’t get me wrong: someone needs to report on the pig roast, a significant trend reflecting a culture’s legitimately groundbreaking new relationship with food. The best periodicals have food reporters, like our Allecia Vermillion, to do just that. But to suggest that this kind of reporting can be a substitute for critical appraisal is to play right into the hands of chefs who’d rather be revered than held to account.
Until diners stop having to pay for restaurant meals, someone has to have the diner’s back. A critic’s job is assessing a restaurant’s effectiveness—not the chef’s good intentions. When he reports on the latter he may be a crack reporter, a killer storyteller, a card-carrying member of the food-loving elite…but he’s no longer the critic. He’s subtly shifted allegiances, now telling the story the restaurateur wants told. At the risk of draining every drop of romance out of the world’s most coveted post, restaurant critics are ultimately consumer advocates. Super well-fed ones.
Staying anonymous is the only way I have found to do that. Whether they know it or not, restaurants want me to do that. (Believe me: the adulation of a non-anonymous critic does a restaurant no favors.) I know that readers want me to do that; I hear it from you all the time.
And though I do know what it’s like to be unveiled, the overwhelming majority of my dining visits begin and end the way they do for everyman—in obscurity. Knowing both realities I have to laugh at the folks who assert that it doesn’t matter whether restaurateurs know you’re a critic or not; that once you’re in the room there’s little a restaurant can do to up its game.
Oh, how true that isn’t. When you’re identified as a critic, service immediately gets mawkish and omnipresent—in other words, ironically, worse—and natural human communication goes out the window. The top toque in the kitchen will get the honor of cooking your meal. Wine will be poured high. Your plate will be accorded extra artful attention. It will not arrive cooled, wilted, burnt, or sauce-splattered. It will not arrive late. Its perfection will provide a snapshot of what the restaurant can do, absolutely. But it will tell you nothing about what the restaurant does.
That’s why I’m staying anonymous. Because it’s my job to tell you what the restaurant does.