Today’s announcement that Sam Sifton will be the next dining critic for The New York Times leaves little doubt in my mind that the Gray Lady’s editors have decided anonymity is next to impossible to maintain in that vaunted position. Sure, they apparently scrubbed Sifton’s image from the Times‘ Web site, but it takes all of .11 seconds to find his Spud-like mug in a Google search.
So, in a larger context, what does this hire mean for the role of the restaurant critic? Has the era of new media changed the rules on anonymity, as the New York Observer suggested this afternoon? Or have the Times editors just finally acknowledged that no restaurant critic, ever, has truly been anonymous — no matter how many disguises they donned to conceal their identity?
This is an important subject that doesn’t get enough discussion. Ruth Reichl famously proved that dining anonymously affects your experience, if not your food. But as Reichl herself would certainly confess, maintaining anonymity in the face of nosy PR agents, debt-ridden restaurateurs, and nervous investors is all but impossible. One way or another, they will find out what a critic looks like. Then they will post a picture in the kitchen and offer the staff cash rewards for spotting the powerful arbiter.
There’s simply too much money at stake for many restaurants to leave a review up to fate. They want to game the system as much as possible.
Critics, I believe, know this, but the dining public is often led to believe that a critic is rarely spotted, rarely treated differently than the average dinner. That is no doubt true at small, perhaps ethnic-oriented restaurants. But at high-end operations that employ PR agents and have deep connections in the local industry, such a notion is a pure fantasy. They know when a critic walks in the door.
So should critics and their editors just give up on the idea of anonymity? I don’t think so. Critics should strive to keep a low profile. They should never make a reservation under their own name. They should not draw attention to themselves in a restaurant. They should conduct interviews over the phone as much as possible.
And they should be as honest as their editors will allow about when they have been made in a restaurant. This will allow readers to decide for themselves if the published review is suspect in any way. Restaurateurs can do so many things to make the dining experience better for a critic if they know one’s in the house. They can devote extra attention to the dishes coming out of the kitchen. They can fawn over the diners at the critic’s table. They can make sure every detail of their experience is pitch-perfect.
But one thing they can’t do is cook above their own competency. A good critic can still sniff out a poor kitchen performance or a poor ingredient or a poor recipe. It merely requires a tough-minded critic who has the skill, palate, and knowledge to see beyond the niceties in the dining room.
Sam Sifton may be that person, even if every restaurateur in New York City knows what he looks like.