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The Critical Life

I read an interesting article in the Washingtonian last week titled, “Spies, Dossiers, and the Insane Lengths Restaurants Go to Track and Influence Food Critics.” The gist of the piece is that high-end restaurants in Washington, D.C. bend over backwards to know when food critics are dining in their establishments and to make sure the food served is the best it can be.

In the first paragraphs of the story the author relates an anecdote about Tom Sietsema, the primary restaurant reviewer for the Washington Post, making a reservation under an assumed name at Le Diplomate, a French restaurant. First, though he made the reservation under an assumed name, the restaurant knew it was him because they have a list of every phone number, email address and alias he’d used to make a reservation. Photographs of Sietsema and “dozens” of other food writers were posted in the kitchen.

Given the ubiquity of caller ID and email addresses, I’m not terribly surprised that restaurants keep a record of such information, or that some restaurants are willing to share it with colleagues, even if those colleagues work for competitors. I have personally seen photographs of a couple of local food writers taped up in New Orleans kitchens, though in one case, it seemed to have been done so that the chefs could write nasty things about the writer in question, since the writer is not anonymous.

But the effort the restaurant thereafter made to ensure Sietsema and his party had a pleasant evening was certainly more than I’d expect any local eatery to undertake. Here’s an example:

As the evening approached, the staff ran through its critic checklist—a document employed with extra attention to detail during spring and fall “critic season.” They inspected the light bulbs. They searched for gum under tables. One manager showed up a few hours early to gather brand-new, never-used silverware, glasses, and plates from a stash stored in the church next door. The dinnerware was washed, polished, and set aside specifically for Sietsema’s party so he would see no scuff marks or chips.

It went on from there – they made sure the servers waiting on his table were the restaurant’s best, and that he was seated next to regulars whom they were confident would enjoy their meals. The kitchen and bar made two of everything the party ordered, sending out the one they judged most attractive and tasting the other to make sure everything was prepared properly. When the plates came back to the kitchen, each was studied to gauge whether Sietsema had liked it.

Restaurants certainly pay more attention to critics when they are aware the critic is present. Even though I’m not a critic – I don’t really write reviews as much as I write about places I like and/or which are so new that a formal review isn’t appropriate – I recognize that some restaurants probably treat me differently. Early on in my food writing career, when I was a mere blogger, I was very surprised when I was recognized. I knew I had a fair number of readers, because every so often I’d check to see how many people were visiting the website, but I didn’t consider what I did significant enough to merit the attention. The first few times it happened, I thought I was being paranoid. It took a chef I’d never met calling me by my first name and telling me, “of course we know who you are…” for it to sink in, and it’s made me a bit nervous ever since.

That’s part of the reason I address the topic every so often. I have no objection to being treated well, because obviously I am the finest specimen humanity has yet produced and deserve to be treated like a golden god. But it seems rude to acknowledge that widely, and I also don’t want to feel as though a restaurant expects something from me in exchange for the VIP treatment.

I generally don’t accept free food unless it’s related to a press event, or if my relationship with the restaurant is such that I’d be getting it regardless of my writing. If a kitchen sends something out to me without asking, I generally just add the menu price up in my head and add it to the tip. Intellectually, I know this is silly, and that I should be grateful for the attention, but I am a special variety of golden god (the neurotic kind) and there is nothing I can do about it.

I admire food writers who can pull off the whole anonymity game over a period of years, but the truth of the Washingtonian article is that if there is a perception that other folks take your opinions about restaurants seriously, some restaurants are going to figure out who you are and treat you differently. I am proof that this applies to bloggers as well as more traditional journalists, and I suspect that it applies to people who post frequently enough on platforms like Yelp and Tripadvisor to become recognizable as well.

If you use such platforms to guide your dining choices, my advice is to look for reviews by people who post a lot and who like/dislike the same restaurants you do, for the same reasons. It at least gives you a baseline to judge when you’re looking at unfamiliar restaurants. A final note: if you are the sort of person who threatens restaurant staff with a negative review on such sites, you are lower than snake ass.



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