I recently got my Washington driver's license, probably a few weeks too many after my North Carolina license snapped in half. The Department of Motor Vehicles here doesn't require license applicants to take a driving test or a traffic laws quiz, but they're supposed to know the color of their eyes.
"I have no idea," I told the clerk when she prompted me. "What do you think?"
I honestly don't know if my eyes are brown or gray or green. But not knowing exactly what I look like apparently makes me an outlier in the local restaurant community.
In the service area of RN74, there's a wanted poster with multiple images of me. "Hannah Raskin . . . know her," reads the sign, which our photographer captured when he was shooting pictures to accompany my review of the restaurant. It appears the printout is hung above another sign familiarizing servers with Wagyu beef.
I didn't learn about the poster until my review was written and published. But it makes me question my conclusions about RN74, especially since I was seated about 20 feet from the service area on my second visit. While I always monitor nearby tables to make sure other guests are receiving equally good service, it seems plausible that a restaurant which would bother producing a Hanna Raskin collage might coach its servers to behave in my vicinity.
Despite my best scrubbing attempts, pictures of me have long been available online: If you can Google, you can find me addressing a crowd at a bus unveiling (I served as chair of the Asheville transit commission) and toasting my successor at the alt-weekly in Asheville. But I didn't fully appreciate how badly my anonymity had been compromised until I learned about the RN74 poster.
As readers of my reviews know, I'm frequently on the receiving end of service that isn't consistent with being recognized. When a server doesn't return for 30 minutes or a hostess seats me next to an open door on a chilly night, I feel pretty anonymous. I've never had a chef send over extra dishes or a hostess rush me to the front of a line. There's been only one occasion in Seattle on which I suspected I'd been made: On my first visit to Zig Zag, Murray Stenson didn't charge me for a drink.
So I always assumed restaurant owners had better things to do than memorize my face. I've kept a picture of the RN74 poster as a reminder of my naïveté.
When I joined Village Voice Media as the food critic for the Dallas Observer, my editors asked me whether I planned to work anonymously. They didn't care either way, but I felt strongly that I couldn't do my job properly if restaurant owners recognized me. Nothing is more useless to diners than a review detailing how a restaurant treats food critics.
Working anonymously entails more than just using credit cards with fake names. I duck out of every photo, and skip every press event to which I'm invited. I refuse to meet publicists and chefs in person. I only attend public events if I can blend into the crowd, or, on rare occasions when I'm called upon to sit at a judging table, if I'm elaborately costumed.
Since I believe anonymity is a means and not an end, I'm not a recluse: I will participate in registration-required events if I think there's an opportunity for me to learn something which will help me do my job better, or to support the local food community in a significant way. That's why I annually attend the Association of Food Journalists conference, and why I recently volunteered to teach a food writing course at 826 Seattle, a nonprofit writing center for kids.
But those exceptions are so exceedingly rare that it galls me when I'm labeled "un-anonymous." My hunch is most diners don't bother to distinguish between "un-anonymous" critics who storm into restaurants demanding special treatment and "un-anonymous" critics who've been outed on Eater. I put too much work into remaining behind-the-scenes to have my efforts dismissed because an angry blogger at a private party surreptitiously took my picture.
The good news is the situation's easily remedied. I already do everything that anonymity requires; I've just had the bad luck of having my picture publicized. But I can render those pictures worthless by wearing a disguise when reviewing, which is what I intend to do.
I've always scoffed at masquerading critics, since the point of anonymity is to deflect attention. It isn't compatible with spectacle. But I've begun to realize that, for a critic, a disguise is just a work uniform, much like the button-down shirt I wore when I umpired youth softball and the quilted brown jacket I wore when I delivered packages for UPS.
Can I fully regain my anonymity? I figure if women can reclaim their virginity, I probably have a pretty good shot at it. My get-ups have been approved by my family members, who swear they couldn't pick me out of a crowd so attired.
Dining in disguise, I can again trust my restaurant assessments. I hope you can too.