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How crucial is it for food critics to be anonymous?

I first learned about the disguises when I was in seventh grade and a guy in my class clued me in, telling me about the wigs, makeup and costumes his mother wore when she went out to dinner. His mother was a restaurant critic for a prominent New York magazine and she not only used fake names when dining out, she also sought to mask her identity with some show biz techniques. The whole thing sounded quite cool, if a trifle self-important.

Years later, after doing some restaurant reviews on the side while working at a newspaper in Florida, I found out firsthand why it's so important for restaurant critics to do whatever they can to maintain their anonymity. After the owner of an eatery figured out who I was, my experience at that place changed dramatically--we were smothered with attention, offered free tastes of new dishes, in all, we had evenings wholly unlike those of others dining just a table or two away. That of course would have made it completely impossible to offer readers a remotely accurate sense of what going out to that place would be like for them.

But despite that self-evident truth, it's recently become all the rage for some food bloggers to take great glee in outing restaurant critics. One New York web site has now published a gallery of photos of critics from publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post and New York magazine. The motivation appears to be entirely nasty and prankish. This is the closest I've found to a rationale for collecting and publishing the pictures: "the argument can be made that knowing a critic is in the house can help chefs and business owners present their restaurant in the best way possible." Why any publication would see it as its mission to allow business owners to give critics a warped and unrepresentative view of their product is beyond me, but let's just say this is about amassing page views, not serving the dining public.

The outing phenomenon does, however, speak to a bigger and legitimate issue in the new media environment: the clash between critics who know their field intimately and have made a career of learning, teaching and communicating about a particular art, and the web sites that tout the collective wisdom of random strangers as a judge of quality superior to self-appointed critics. In Columbia Journalism Review, food critic Robert Sietsema (improbably enough, no relation to The Post's food critic, Tom Sietsema) writes about the evolution of modern restaurant criticism, the move toward professional standards that put diners' interests first and foremost, and the strange move back toward an ethical free for all in the last couple of years, as unpaid food bloggers have sought to get free meals in exchange for writing about restaurants. (Newspaper critics like The Post's Sietsema never accept free meals and never announce their presence if they can help it.)

The CJR piece--today's Story Pick of the Day--quotes one food blogger justifying her decision to reject anonymity like this: "I aspire to be as personable as humanly possible to my reader as well as to chefs & restaurateurs alike." But toward what end? To get a free meal? To develop the chefs as sources? Certainly the motive cannot be to be a fair and unbiased judge of the food and the dining experience on behalf of readers, because developing a relationship with the restaurateur instantly colors that dining experience and makes it impossible for the writer to serve the reader's interests.

I asked Tom Sietsema whether anonymity really makes a difference in how he does his work. He responded with a vehement yes:

It's more important than ever in a world where everyone is truly a critic and many diners seem eager for attention (to be recognized as a blogger or whatever). I've been doing this job in this market for 10 years now. It would be naive of me to think I'm not recognized, especially in the better-known places. But I take pains to avoid being 'made' in restaurants and to fairly evaluate service. I never make reservations in my own name, for instance. I sometimes arrive after my guests, who I've instructed to order appetizers ahead of my being seated. I've worn disguises in all the major restaurants (I still remember the bad table I got at the Inn several years ago) -- and without their knowing, as far as I could tell.... Striving for anonymity is important. I want the same experience, for better or for worse, as the typical diner.

Robert Sietsema's piece offers a welcome caution to those who are drawn to sites such as Yelp that purport to offer real reviews by real people. As The Post's Michael Rosenwald reported recently, such sites are often heavily manipulated by businesses and PR firms they hire to add positive reviews and ameliorate negative ones.

In the end, the web does give people with shared interests and expertise unprecedented opportunity to come together and help each other--as Chowhound and similar food sites have demonstrated. But as in any other art form, nothing quite competes with the ability of a smart and experienced critic to offer both useful advice and a running tutorial on the achievements and meaning of that art, whether it's cooking, moviemaking, or the performance of music or theater.

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By Marc Fisher  | April 22, 2010; 8:14 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks, The inside story  | Tags:  Chowhound, Columbia Journalism Review, Restaurant, Robert Sietsema, Tom Sietsema, Washington Post, Yelp, food bloggers, food blogs, restaurant reviews  
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It's not about being a food critic, it's about being a restaurant critic. There are four things you need to know about a restaurant: food, service, ambiance, and price. Anonymity is important to getting an accurate picture of all of these.

In my personal experience, if the food is good, and you can rank two of the next three points (service, ambiance, price) as good, you've found a great restaurant. There's only a few places out there that meet all four.

Posted by: em15 | April 22, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

The question should be: are food critics needed at all?

Posted by: jckdoors | April 23, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

"Certainly the motive cannot be to be a fair and unbiased judge of the food and the dining experience on behalf of readers, because developing a relationship with the restaurateur instantly colors that dining experience and makes it impossible for the writer to serve the reader's interests."
This is completely false. Critics in this field and many others know their subjects not just personally but sometimes intimately. Yet somehow criticism can still be objective, no? And your indictment of 'bloggers' as just trying to cadge a meal is outdated and insulting. Maybe in the end, they are just out-hustling your 'anonymous' ink-stained wretches.

Posted by: MiamiDanny | April 24, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

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