The Los Angeles Times ran a story earlier this week delving into a subject that I’ve fretted about ever since I started eating for a living: the anonymity of restaurant critics and how both Google and bloggers have undermined the sacred tradition of dining under the radar.
The Times puts the question to several food journalists, including Jonathan Gold of L.A. Weekly, whose picture appeared in countless publications after he won a Pulitzer this year. Most agree that having their cover blown——-or not caring about it in the first place——-doesn’t affect the meals or their ability to judge them. (I’m massively paraphrasing, but that’s the gist.)
Here’s my take: Goddamn right it makes a difference when a restaurant knows a critic is there. They kiss your ass. They take more time with your food. I even heard a story about a restaurant that cooked two different versions of everything a food critic ordered and then sent the best one to his table. That just doesn’t happen to regular folks. But here’s the thing: There’s absolutely no way Tom Sietsema, Todd Kliman, or any other food critic can fully protect their anonymity. They (we) just can’t. Restaurants, particularly the high-end ones, will find out who you are. Too much is at stake for them to just trust the journalistic process.
I’m wondering if we shouldn’t just stop this charade. I’m not recommending that critics announce their presence beforehand and then assume some lofty perch inside a restaurant, as if we’re judges for Olympic figure skating or something (although that might have more integrity than the current system). We should continue to do whatever we can to maintain our anonymity. But can we stop convincing the public that restaurants never know who we are? Some do, and, yes, it affects our meals and our service.
Yet the question I don’t have an answer to is this: How should we let you, the readers, know when we’ve been busted (or even think we’ve been busted)? Should we call the owners and chefs up before we write an article and ask them? (And then mention it in the review?) Should we have a little check box denoting whether we’ve ever shaken hands with the chef before stepping foot into his or her restaurant? Should we say whether we wore a costume into the restaurant?
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear ’em.