Last week, as the rest of us were settling into the Christmas spirit, a grumpy Beverly Hills restaurateur snapped a picture of Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila and asked her to leave, even before she was seated. Then he published her picture on the restaurant's website, since picked up by blogs and news media. The fallout has sparked a debate. Simply put, what difference does it make whether a restaurant critic can remain anonymous?
Reviewers for responsible local newspapers make every effort to hide their identities. Their pictures are not published, and they avoid attending public events. They book tables under aliases and often pay with credit cards issued to a different name. Some wear disguises.
The reasoning is sound. If a restaurant’s staff knows it is serving someone who can make a huge difference in their revenue, they are likely to do everything they can to make sure things go well for the critic—a better table, more attentive service, the thickest steak, the freshest piece of fish instead of yesterday’s, a freshly cooked item instead of one that has been preprepared. Local critics for big publications also return for several visits. The goal is to approximate the experience any customer might receive.
But in reality, in any major city, the point is moot. If a picture isn’t posted in the kitchen, enough members of the staff recognize the key reviewers. And that’s what happened to Virbila. According to the restaurant’s managing partner, there was much behind-the-scenes “is that her?” debate before they finally made the ID. He came out, snapped her pic, and asked her to leave, explaining later that the owners resented things she had written about restaurants where they had worked before.
Key critics know that it’s a myth that they can dine anonymously in a new restaurant that expects to be reviewed. Even if they won’t say so publicly, they admit that the best they can do is take the restaurant by surprise. At least the kitchen can’t prepare something special in advance, knowing that a critic is coming.
But the truth is, any restaurateur that hopes to make a splash knows how it works. They know the critics are coming in the first couple of months, both the ones that publish in major print media and the ones, amateur and pro, who post their judgments on the Internet. And they prepare accordingly.
When I review restaurants for Wine Spectator, I use a pseudonym and provide an e-mail address or call-back number that does not announce my name. And yet, although my picture appears with this blog and my columns in the magazine, it surprises me that more than half the time restaurants don’t recognize me at all. Or if they do, they remain pretty poker-faced about it.
But beyond trying to arrive anonymously, I don’t sweat it. Unlike local critics, who try to cover every important restaurant in their areas, I cherry-pick the ones a national audience might care about. I don’t write long, analytical reviews. I will mention if some element does not come up to snuff, but in the end I focus on what might make a restaurant worth my readers’ attention. If it doesn’t rise to that level, it doesn’t get published.
Another Los Angeles critic, Jonathan Gold of L.A. Weekly, took a bemused attitude in response to this news. When he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his restaurant criticism, his picture appeared everywhere. He says today that he noticed no difference at all in being recognized in restaurants.
So, how much does a reviewer’s anonymity matter to you?
Eric P Perramond — Colorado Springs, CO — December 27, 2010 1:27pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 27, 2010 2:20pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — December 27, 2010 2:56pm ET
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — December 27, 2010 3:08pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 27, 2010 3:14pm ET
Dan Perlman — Buenos Aires — December 27, 2010 4:08pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 27, 2010 4:35pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 27, 2010 4:38pm ET
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — December 27, 2010 5:12pm ET
Eugene Kim — Houston, TX — December 27, 2010 7:53pm ET
Steve Kirchner — huntington beach, ca — December 28, 2010 11:23am ET
Jason Carey — willow, ny usa — December 28, 2010 11:33am ET
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