Restaurant Review - Dining critic anonymity: the hard truth

In the age of social media, anonymity's practically impossible. And it still matters.

Last year, when the New York Times announced its newest restaurant critic would be Sam Sifton, a writer whose photograph appeared on the Times' website until the announcement of his new gig, the question of restaurant critic anonymity became the food world's hottest topic. What did this mean for criticism? Had the Times, the paper that originally instituted the strict standards of restaurant reviewing, sold its soul and ethics by hiring an easily identifiable critic?

The debate has swirled ever since. In Texas, the Houston Press' Robb Walsh declared that he was giving anonymity up, saying "the ethical guidelines shifted ... when Sam Sifton took over as the restaurant critic for the New York Times."

Robert Sietsema wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about the history of restaurant criticism and the dangers of letting go of our core principles. The AJC's Meridith Ford Goldman weighed in last August with a blog post titled "Is anonymity in dining criticism overrated?" saying, "Frankly, any of the top restaurants in the city that don't know what I look like are just not doing their job."

The trend seems to be that critics who've maintained their anonymity (or who like to think so) say it's important, while recognizable critics and those who've shunned the concept say it's meaningless. The truth is, once a critic has been in a city for a long period of time, total anonymity is practically impossible. And also, that anonymity does make a difference. In many cases, a big difference.

Although the Times' hiring of Sifton may have been the catalyst for the current attention on anonymity's relative importance, the issue would have come up regardless. If the profession survives the great media meltdown of this century, the future restaurant critics of America will all have the same problem: Facebook. Anonymity in the age of social media and online photo sharing is unlikely at best.

I was fortunate to come to the profession at the cusp of social media's ubiquity. There were a few photos of me online when I was hired at Creative Loafing and they were easy to take down. Since then, I've been as careful as possible with my image. This presents some problems, but not many. I'm a critic. The goal is anonymity. I'm not a fan of the peekaboo photo, where you can see some of my face but not all of it, or just my mouth, or even my hair. For a time, I shunned radio appearances so my voice wouldn't betray me.

But the truth is, after four years in Atlanta, many chefs and waiters know what I look like. This happens for a variety of reasons. In the first months of a restaurant's life, employees are on the lookout for critics. Decent waiters are perceptive – if you ask a lot of questions, or know more about wine than you look like you should, it can be a red flag. Astute servers often remember every guest so well that when a review comes out, they'll recall an exchange detailed in the article. I'll never forget how, a year after reviewing the Epicurean, its then-general manager Andres Loaiza (Aria's current GM) called out to me by name at a festival. He'd recognized the meal I described in the review and a year later remembered my face based only on what I'd eaten and my reaction to it. Impressive. And inconvenient.

A major conflict for me is food festivals. Nowhere else am I more likely to blow my cover than at a place where chefs converge. If one knows who I am, chances are they'll all know by the end of the day. But some of the city's festivals represent the heart of our food culture. They're also a way for me to keep tabs on restaurants I'm not able to visit as often as I'd like: How else can I see what 30 or more chefs are up to in one day?

I reject the notion that anonymity doesn't matter. I notice a palpable change when I've been recognized at a restaurant. Sometimes it makes no difference – the better the restaurant the truer this is. If service and food are genuinely stellar, they'll be stellar for everyone. But sometimes it makes a world of difference. The kitchen may send less-than-perfect food to a regular table it would not send to a critic. Service, from where you're sat to the waiter's tone to the speed of your order, are absolutely variable depending on the perceived importance of a customer. A few weeks back I waited 20 minutes for a sommelier at a well-regarded restaurant, during which time he schmoozed with a moneyed regular at the table beside me. I was frustrated and hungry and thirsty. The incident didn't make it into my review, but it colored the way I saw the service in general. Would that have happened if I'd been recognized? Never.

While many of the chefs in town know what I look like, and although I am occasionally recognized, I don't think that's the end of the battle. I haven't yet taken to wearing disguises (mainly because it seems silly, self-important and probably futile), but I don't let the game end just because I'm identifiable. Last year, I did a re-review of a restaurant where I knew the chef – we had inadvertently met at a friend's party. I was able to visit twice without him knowing. He was there. It's a small restaurant. They have an open kitchen. I just kept to myself and didn't say "hi" and sat with my back to the kitchen. This isn't always possible. But keeping a low profile goes a long way.

I also reject the notion that a critic's effectiveness is nullified once she's recognized. Some of our city's most trusted voices, from CL's own Cliff Bostock to Knife & Fork's Christiane Lauterbach, are well known. Lauterbach uses her relationships with chefs to great effect, getting the inside story straight from the source. And readers trust her: She never sugarcoats the truth to spare a chef's feelings.

Being a professional eater presents all kinds of ethical dilemmas. But there's a huge amount of value in approaching it from a professional standpoint. I wish I could go back to the days when no one knew what I looked like. But in Atlanta at least, that's not going to happen. It doesn't mean I'm going to give up trying for it.