Washington City Paper last week kicked up yet another anonymity kerfuffle by announcing its newest hire - who's officially the alt-weekly's food editor, not its restaurant critic - wouldn't try to hide her identity. Eater helpfully ran her picture to prove it.
While maintaining total anonymity is probably impossible in an age when everyone is always carrying a camera, I still do my best not to advertise my presence in restaurants, whether or not I'm officially on the job. I make reservations in fake names, pay with cash and keep a costume chest stocked with wigs, glasses and lipsticks in shades I'd never otherwise wear. And if the responses our photographer gets when he calls restaurants to schedule shoots is any indication, I think I've been fairly successful: Most owners are surprised to learn I've been a repeat guest.
Soon after my husband and I were seated in Zoe's enclosed patio, a server greeted us with an off-putting "Hey, great to see you two again!" I instantly tensed up, since making multiple visits to a restaurant over the course of one month seems like obvious critic behavior. But the server didn't remember me from my previous visit to Zoe: As he explained, he'd waited on us at Canlis on Apr. 9, 2011.
To be clear, any quibbles I have with Zoe's service have nothing to do with this guy, who should probably be making good money on the competitive memory circuit. He didn't just have an abstract recollection of serving us: He remembered that we'd arrived that very afternoon from Dallas, and were celebrating the completion of our cross-country move (under assumed names, natch.)
I vaguely remember talking to our server about our trip, and trading Austin restaurant recommendations. I don't know whether I also hinted at the reason for our relocation, although it's entirely possible: I knew I wouldn't be reviewing Canlis - my predecessor, Jason Sheehan, had done so just before he left - and may have assumed such a polished restaurant would be quick to spot a critic anyhow. Also, I'd been sleeping in cheap motels for a week. It probably wasn't my sharpest moment.
It's a credit to Canlis and Zoe that the server was discreet: He didn't ask me how the critic gig was going, or deliver any surprise gifts from the kitchen. But drinks were quickly refilled; more bread was fetched the moment it became clear that I needed somewhere to put my remaining pate; and our plates were artfully arranged with food that was correctly cooked, reminding me again why anonymity really does matter.
Zoe's a fine place for a known critic to dine, but it's tough for a civilian diner to ignore its flaws. For more on the typical Zoe experience, check out my review here. And don't miss the accompanying slideshow from Joshua Huston.