During the holidays, the universe of food was rocked by Adam Platt’s decision to reveal his identity. Platt is the restaurant critic for New York Magazine, and went so far as to have his picture appear on the cover of that publication for the world to see.
His reasoning was simple: Everyone in the restaurant community already knew who he was, so why hide it? Why bother with the charade of making reservations under phony names and wearing disguises, when in many cases the restaurant has already been reviewed dozens or hundreds of times online by the time the magazine comes out?
In theory, the myth of the anonymous restaurant critic is a powerful one. The theory is that the critic will have the same experience that a member of the public will have, and be able to form an unvarnished opinion of the establishment. According to popular legend, the unidentified restaurant critic is the best sort of consumer advocate.
The problem is that few people are really anonymous anymore---spend a few minutes on the Internet, and you can unearth photographs of almost any member of the population. Many restaurant critics have long tenures, and after a year or two their identity is known to the majority of restaurant personnel in their area. Even if the critic is spotted, there’s little that the restaurant can do to change their menu or style of cooking. As one of Platt’s colleagues observed, there are very few restaurants that are able to transform themselves from mediocre to outstanding after identifying a restaurant critic in their midst. A critic may receive better service than the rest of the room, but the food isn’t likely to improve much.
A case in point was last year’s New York Times review of Restaurant Daniel by Pete Wells. Wells is known around Manhattan, so he employed the strategy of having one of his editors also reserve a table on the same night. The majority of his review pointed out the differences between the service the two tables received, and those differences were considerable---more ruffles and flourishes for Wells, extra courses sent out from the kitchen at no charge, and a much higher level of solicitude.
Of course, few publications have the budget to do that, and the disappearing anonymity of restaurant critics might turn out to be a good thing for the general public---particularly if you have the good fortune to be seated next to one at dinner.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press; his second book, Moonshine Nation, is forthcoming from Lyons Press in June 2014. For more information, go to amazon.com