You might have heard about the shit storm that kicked up just before Christmas when a restaurateur outed the L.A. Times critic S. Irene Virblia. The guy kicked her out of his place, took her photo and posted it for all to see. He's either a hero or a villain depending on who you talk to.
Anton Ego was completely fine with being out there as a food critic.
The idea of a reviewer remaining undercover in this everybody's-out-there world seems as dated as well, those relics in which many old school critics' work appears. (I'm talking about a newspaper! Remember? The thing that you used to line your bird cage with? The thing that was tossed on your doorstep and smudged your fingers with ink? Pause here for nostalgic awww or cynical sneer from those who never saw the point of the printed word.)
No matter which side you come down on with this latest restaurateur vs. critic incident, there's no denying the brilliance of the restaurant dude's move. His place might be terrible, but he's gotten an avalanche of buzz on Web sites around the globe. And, to dig into the cliche vault, there's no such thing as bad publicity.In the dozen years I was a restaurant critic for three newspapers, I used various tricks to fly under the radar. I'd send my party in early and then I'd slip in, trying to keep my back to the action. I'd make reservations under my daughter's name. Most important, though, I'd always take the temperature of the room. Was everybody happy?
At one point, when I was working for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, I decided I was going to take the Ruth Reichl route and wear a disguise. I charged a very foxy midnight black bob wig to my expense account and adopted an alter ego named Cindy. And guess what? I got shitty service in some of my favorite places. Places where they would fuss and try to send out free dishes to try when I went in and was recognized. That made me so sad, especially when I reported about it.
The whole idea of trying to remain anonymous as a critic is to get treated like every Regular Joe who walks into a restaurant. These days, it's the Regular Joes and Janes on Yelp who've got the power. Love it or hate it (and I've never heard of a restaurateur who loves it), Yelp has democratized the business of restaurant criticism. (It has also created some monsters, who go into a place, demanding special treatment. Not cool.)
It's not surprising that this latest stink about a restaurant's right to try and control its destiny by booting a critic and then sticking that dagger in the heart by posting her photo happened in paparazzi LALA land. The place where an intrusive camera in the face can make or break careers.
What I find deeply disappointing is when a so-called food news site maliciously outs a critic just for the hell of it. That happened on Eater a few weeks ago, when it posted a photo of our esteemed colleague Hanna Raskin. Hanna, who has been at the Dallas Observer since this summer, wrote a provocative column about how the city's dining scene lacked a true identity. Hey, that's what good food critics do! They try to stir things up, to affect change for the better. But she was cast as the bad guy and Eater took relish in publishing her pic. (Pause here for a tsk, tsk, for shame.)
Wouldn't it be kind of refreshing if the nation's dwindling number of traditional food critics took control, made the bold step and identified themselves? Came out with a new code of conduct, which clearly stated that if there was any perception of special treatment, it would show up in a review? That those critics would report any freebies or any outright shabby service. It would be super cool if there was some recognition that there's a New World Order when it comes to restaurant reviewing. Now, that's the kind of news that would make headlines in those old-fashioned fish wraps otherwise known as newspapers.