Every 10-12 months, the argument restarts itself, roiling across food blogs, newspapers, and now Twitter feeds: Should restaurant critics be anonymous? Today, Nancy Leson, formerly the anonymous critic for the Seattle Times and now a public restaurant-scene chronicler, has launched a discussion on her blog about the latest scandal/non-scandal involving Sam Sifton, the NY Times' new restaurant critic. The moment Sifton was named, his photo went viral.
Nancy's take on anonymity in the post is largely without comment: When I was a waiter, she says, we sure as hell cared about critics; when I was a critic lots of people didn't recognize me even when I expected they would; and I'm glad not to have to be anonymous anymore. However, she does link to a 2000 column in which she argues the point that all of us feel very strongly -- that by staying anonymous we can give a review from a customer's viewpoint, not a sort of celebrity's.
Restaurant critics haven't always been anonymous -- the Seattle Times' beloved John Hintenberger was far from -- but over the past two decades, anonymity has emerged as a requirement for serious restaurant criticism, partly because of the ethical-standards-setting of professional associations like the Association of Food Journalists (I'm a member). Now, in the Blog Age, the pendulum seems to be swinging back. I've been spotting more and more photos of my contemporaries, whether on the back covers of their books or next to their bylines.
I'm not planning on joining them.
Why do I keep my face out of the way, refuse to meet restaurant people and PR people, and pay using different credit cards? I can't completely double-oh-six it: Seattle's a small town, waiters can trace back reviews and figure out who I was, and I've inadvertently met industry people at parties and dinners. What's important to me -- and to the paper and to you -- is that I keep making the effort to be anonymous. Being ID'd during a restaurant visit isn't going to invalidate the review. After all, as South Sound Eats' Ed Murietta has pointed out before, there's only so much they can do once you walk in. Operating 100% publicly, however, changes the dining experience in ways that detract from a restaurant critic's validity.
Reviewing a service is not the same as reviewing a movie, play, piece of art, book, etc. Every interaction in a restaurant is -- and should be -- personal. The identity of the person who's being served/cooked for does affect how he or she is treated, as former NY Times critic Ruth Reichl's varied disguises famously proved. As much as restaurants like to claim they treat every customer the same, that's bullshit. VIPs get welcomed differently, served differently, courted with reverent attention. I've been in the kitchen when we recognized a critic and seen chefs, waiters, and managers scramble to oblige.
The more I can avoid VIP treatment, the more I limit the power differential between me and a restaurant, keeping our interaction closest to one of customer and service provider, not "Critic" and "Criticized." Staying anonymous also keeps me modest -- megalomania is either a prerequisite for or a side effect of working as a critic -- and focused on the experience I'm supposed to be evaluating.
The anti-anonymity camp asks, with a skeptical smirk, can't critics take into account the fact that they're being recognized? Well, yes, we do. The flipside of megalomania is neurosis, and every critic I know has a professional case of paranoia. It's contagious, too. Everyone who dines out with me more than a couple of times has the experience of receiving some small kindness from the staff -- a manager coming around to greet the tables, a free taste of a wine offered by the glass, an extra share plate or soup spoon. These are the kinds of things that are supposed to happen regularly but don't. When a waiter does something that feels unnecessarily nice, my guests invariably turn to me and whisper, urgently, "They've made you!" Knowing -- or suspecting -- I've been outed actually makes me discount good service rather than praise it when it happens. Which is why anonymity can work in restaurants' favor.
This is the age when every journalist is encouraged to become a brand, and the more public the better. But there are also two personal reasons why, if my identity was made public, I would move on to some other form of writing.
1. I'm no good at muddying waters. Having worked in restaurants throughout my late teens and 20s, I miss hanging out with other food pros, but as a critic there's no way I want to get to know them. I visit restaurants to praise and criticize these pros, and the Weekly pays me to be fair, not nice. If I'm dining out at a restaurant where the staff is buddy-buddy with me because of friendship (or, let's face it, the job), and then I'm writing my review with "What is so-and-so going to say about this when I see him next?" in the back of my mind, it's going to affect the review. Anyone who can critique the hard work of people he knows while remaining completely unaffected by friendship is an asshole.
2. I'm not a performer. My work is easier if my guests and I are operating under the radar. A huge aspect of taking people out 3-8 times a week means constantly playing host. People who come along with me aren't merely extra mouths, commanded to be subservient and quiet. I want my guests to relax, enjoy or hate the meal on its own terms, appreciate the vibe of the place for what it is, and share their own impressions of the restaurant with me while I take stock on my own. If I'm on stage throughout the meal, and have to monitor my and my guests' every word because the restaurant staff are on high alert all around us? Sounds like torture. For everyone involved.
What I love best about Yelp, Citysearch, Chowhound, Urbanspoon, etc. is that these sites bleed writers like Nancy and me of the power to "make" or "break" a place, which used to be the measure of a restaurant critic. That power belongs in the hands of the broader public, all of whom now get to be anonymous restaurant critics, too. I'm just one voice, one set of opinions, and I've had only one set of personal interactions with a restaurant. In this age, the critic's job is to be entertaining as well as fair and knowledgeable. What we should aim for is to be read for our writing and for the thought we put into evaluating a meal, a cook, a room.
Could I do this if I had to go public? Possibly -- but I wouldn't.