Let the Critics Out of the Closet

From Ratatouille (2007)

Anonymity turns restaurant critics into some kind of stealthy ninja with a distant or even adversarial stance, and this benefits no one.

The Association of Food Journalists has guidelines for how to go about reviewing restaurants. Chief among these is the commonplace dictum, “reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible.” Even professional organizations governing the ethics of food writing are well aware that preserving anonymity is often not especially possible.

Let’s first consider why anonymity is difficult to secure and then proceed to an understanding of why we should not bother to secure it. Because what is the point of maintaining anonymity as a food critic? In my opinion, very little.

In order to visit a restaurant worthy of review, one generally has to make a reservation first. Food critics are encouraged to invent pseudonyms for this purpose. Personally, I make all the reservations under my wife’s name, so it is possible to track my intention to review by looking for her name on the list. But I use her name for all our reservations, whether I'm working on a review or not, and we dine out quite often, so restaurants living in fear of my wife’s name on the list are likely to be relieved when coverage doesn’t materialize.

When a critic succeeds in pseudonymously capturing the reservations, most of the time this alternate persona will fail before the critic has exited. Many critics do not dine alone. If I use a fake name, then my wife and the two friends we brought along for a double date will be roped into the necessity of keeping up this ruse. If one of them should let my real name slip, as is bound to happen after we’ve ordered a couple of rounds from the cocktail menu, the jig is up.

Assuming my companions manage to get through the entire meal addressing me by my fake name, eventually the bill will arrive and I will fork over the credit card with my real name on it. There’s no data on this, but I would venture to guess that the vast majority of food critics are not bequeathed a company card. Many of us write reviews for more than one publication, and many of us operate through reimbursement paperwork rather than corporate credit.

There's an even higher degree of difficulty in the matter of appearances. There are nine books out there with my name on the front cover and photo on the back cover. A quick image search of my name yields dozens of representative photos of my face, a handful of the entire length of my body, and even a few of my motorcycle (which, ironically on this subject, sports a vanity plate that includes part of my name on it). I may not be particularly recognizable on the street, but if the servers are trained to check the photos of critics posted up in the back office next to the kitchen, or the valets are trained to report any self-parked motorcycles in the lot, they can sound the alarm on my presence easily enough.

Some critics attempt to dine incognito by assuming various disguises; wigs, dark glasses, hats, lots of layers, and so on. They have a better budget than I do and perhaps not quite as much self-respect. I’m not going out on the town with an itchy head and obscured vision, and I’m definitely not going to be able to rope my fashion-conscious, attention-magnet wife into doing the same.

Then there’s the matter of actually trying to get the job done at the table. I’ve got to photograph every plate. With increasing thanks to Instagram and the rise of other visual social media platforms, more diners are snapping pictures of everything before they eat it. As long as I’m using my phone to take the pictures instead of a fancy high resolution camera, the photography part is not going to tip off anyone as to my identity. But I’ve simply got to take notes, as I’m often tasting more than a dozen dishes in one sitting and frequently not writing the review until a week or two after the meal. Some critics sneak into a hidden hallway nook to jot their notes down, but I happen to think leaving to “use the restroom” every ten minutes looks mighty suspicious.

I keep my notepad on the table during the meal and only flip it over whenever I’m ready to write something down, careful to keep my notes out of sight from any approaching servers. Usually I'll jot down a first impression of the plating, a few adjectives about the first bite, and then a sentence or two toward the end of the dish. The result of taking my notes tableside is, at a minimum, that the server eventually assumes that I am scrupulously maintaining some pretentious personal blog about foodie stuff, or that I am going to drop a super serious Yelp! review on them. The vast majority of servers will perk up at the chance to impress even those categories of attentive diner.

Occasionally, I have been accused of spying for competing restaurant or hospitality groups, at which point I will immediately confess that I'm reviewing because I don’t want to know what they’re going to do to my order if I let them continue to believe I’m doing opposition research. When this happens, I generally still don’t say for which publication I'm doing the review, though again, a quick Google search on me will narrow the field considerably.

The other misidentification is that servers will assume I’m in the hospitality industry -- not there to spy, but simply to study. The odd dining habits of critics -- the number of plates, the obscure orders, our ability to pronounce foreign words correctly -- ultimately always out us, though interpretations vary widely from enemy to ally. Any of these cases of misidentification is going to result in a dining experience that is not under “normal” conditions.

Presumably, the goal of anonymity among restaurant critics is to visit the restaurant and receive the same quality of food and service that “regular” people get there. Some would argue that a kitchen is always cooking as well as it can cook, no matter the guest. Perhaps that’s true, but there's still good reason to put scare quotes around the idea of a normal, regular dining experience -- because such a thing simply doesn’t exist.

Don’t ask the chef; ask any general manager of any restaurant. If you repeatedly visit an establishment, the servers and staff come to know you and this often generates small upgrades or insider perks of various kinds, such as a complimentary drink or a visit from the chef with an off-menu item. If you’re a repeat customer at an especially pricey place, or simply have a reputation for spending a lot of money, or you always bring new converts to dine with you, you will quickly get on the radar as worthy of VIP treatment beyond the usually free appetizer.

While we all believe that everyone should expect quality food and service upon walking into a restaurant, there are so many ways to earn instant upgrades and such diverse tiers of dining experience to be had that it's silly to try to put a finger on whatever might constitute the lowest common denominator of dining experience. If the restaurant is always doing its complete best to serve all patrons, than a lapse in my anonymity as a critic hurts no one. But if there are several tiers of experience available, frankly, I would much prefer to see a restaurant give me the absolute best plates and service they can muster for a VIP -- and if the hospitality still doesn’t live up to expectation or the dishes just don’t work, then I’ve seen true failure in a best case scenario.

I’m genuinely rooting for every place I eat at to be a great place; I’m not looking to surprise an establishment and ding it for tiny stuff. If a restaurant is going to show me its best so that I can give a thorough evaluation, there's an advantage to both of us in announcing my presence in advance. On my own website, I’ll often list the next half dozen places that I have on deck for a review. If a manager spots me at a table or on the reservation list, and they want to check on whether their restaurant is up for review, that’s seems to benefit us both. Restaurant criticism isn’t a pop quiz or a gotcha; anonymity turns critics into some kind of stealthy ninja with a distant or even adversarial stance, and this benefits no one.

There are actual downsides to anonymity for critics, too. The ruse demands substantial effort at upkeep, which is bound to distract me from the real reason I'm there by focusing my attention on whether my wig is convincing instead of whether the food is good. The history of internet culture at large shows us clearly that anonymity is too often a cloak of invincibility wherein a critic feels free to give criticism in the nastiest possible way. Attaching my name and face to my reviews adds a layer of personal accountability that keeps me from saying the meanest things on my mind when I've had a bad meal; it doesn’t bias the arguments in the review, but it does help maintain a language and tone that is professional and responsible.

If restaurant criticism is to continue to be a valuable activity, let alone one with high stakes for publicity and thusly for the financial bottom line, both restaurant and critic should have every chance to do it right. Neither place nor person can achieve maximum functionality while under the constraint of anonymity. Inevitably, attempts to preserve anonymity almost always fail. At worst, it does no ethical harm to out a restaurant critic. At best, announcing that today is the day of the big test may result in both better food and better evaluation of it.

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