Happens once, it’s a one-off. Twice, a coincidence. But when a third professional brings up the same issue regarding his profession…that’s a trend.
“I think the era of the anonymous restaurant critic is over,” Cormac Mahoney, owner of the new Madison Park Conservatory, told me last week. I’d called him to discuss a few things for my upcoming review of his place. Little did I know he had a thing or two to discuss with the critic.
Anonymity is passe, he suggested. (Very politely, I might add.) What does it matter if the restaurateur discovers a critic is in the house, he asked, when there’s very little a kitchen can do without notice to significantly change the food it produces anyway? “Our servers aren’t going to treat you differently if they know you’re a critic; they’re service professionals!” he insisted.
I had heard similar not too long ago from William Belickis at Mistral Kitchen, still earlier from Mahoney’s former colleague at Sitka and Spruce, Matt Dillon. None of the three know me by face; all, it seems, would like to. So they can buy my favor with free food and drink, a cynic might assume.
No, they insist: Because anyone who dines with them from a position of judgment cannot possibly give herself over to the rich joy of dining within the community of their house. She cannot experience the pleasure of a personal interaction with the owner/chef—a particular signature of all three. Without that personal connection, how can she fairly appraise the merits of a restaurant that builds so much of its appeal upon it?
Now, Mahoney was taking this up with a critic who is known by face by exactly four restaurateurs in town. (Four too many, to my mind—but a few inevitable personal connections are cost of doing business in a small city.) That is to say, he wasn’t going to get any further with me on this than Belickis or Dillon had.
Of course the restaurant will be tempted to treat a critic differently. Even if it weren’t, the “made” critic would never know that. Was the server actually kind, or just kind to me? Did the kitchen work a little harder to get the plate just right?
Stories run rampant of the bad old John Hinterberger days (the former restaurant critic of the Seattle Times), who, it’s said, thought nothing of phoning ahead to tell the kitchen he’d be coming. That method of reviewing restaurants certainly serves the restaurant, and it probably served Hinterberger—who, of a different era, possibly saw his function mostly as public relations. But how does it serve the diner, who just wants to know where John Q. Public can get a good meal for his money?
Even more, an acquaintance with the chef or the owner of a restaurant shatters my independence. Once I have a personal relationship with someone how can I fairly appraise their work? The problem with familiarity between chef and critic isn’t so much that they know me…it’s that I know them.
So though I get it when a restaurateur insists that personal relationships are central to their enterprise…this critic has learned to uncover this the old-fashioned way: by observing it like a reporter, not experiencing it like a guest.
Of course this critic sees other critics every night, bloggers it seems, openly snapping photos of plates in restaurants, thus obliterating any shred of anonymity. So maybe Mahoney was right: Maybe the era of the anonymous critic really is over.
It’s just that it shouldn’t be.