The Anonymous Restaurant Critic: Is It Even Possible Any More?


A couple of weeks ago, the Chicago-based Menu Pages blog posted an article entitled “Why Does Everyone Hate John Mariani?” It all started when Esquire critic—and author of the influential “Best New Restaurants” list—was in Chicago doing his rounds, which provoked some irate tweets from the likes of the chef de cuisine of Alinea about Mariani’s unethical ways—predominately about his decided lack of anonymity. Let’s just say the word “douchebaggery” was slung. (Why do bloggers and tweeters insist on using variations on this word?)

The truly interesting part of the discussion wasn’t about Mariani though, it was the overarching issue: the state of restaurant criticism today—i.e. print reviewers versus the blogosphere. The word "dinousaurs" was used.

The old-versus-new-guard is a debate I see brewing right here in San Francisco. While we’ve done our share of discussions on this subject on Bits + Bites, I expect the debate to heat up even more now that Eater blatantly posted not one, but two, crystal clear images of the SF Chronicle's Michael Bauer yesterday—outing him to the small percentage of restaurateurs that don’t already know what he looks like, and more importantly, outing him to his readers, who he has assured on his blog “Between Meals,” that he does his best to maintain his anonymity (a "game of cat and mouse"), despite his 20-plus year high-profile tenure (not to mention a purported Christmas party with chefs in attendance). Eater’s post prompted 46 comments, largely written by industry types discussing the fact that everyone knows what Bauer looks like.

One of the few dissenters pleaded: “Anonymous reviews aren't for anybody's benefit but ours, the folks they think they're serving when that person sits down. Please don't mess that up.” Although it sounds like it’s been “messed up” for some while, I would agree with “Missy B” that in the case of criticism, anonymity does matter. A critic is supposed to represent the average diner, receive average diner treatment, and base their review on that. When a reviewer is recognized, a restaurant does not treat them as if they were an average diner. (I can tell you that although we don't do critical reviews here, I'm treated very kindly when I dine out on behalf of 7x7.) It’s an argument that Ruth Reichl famously made when she dined at Le Cirque both in disguise and not.

Amazingly, this is the first time to my knowledge that Bauer has had his photo posted online anywhere—quite a feat during the Facebook generation. For better or for worse, there’s no hiding from much of anything anymore. (As if to demonstrate, Tablehopper just tweeted 17 hours ago while dining at RN74 that "M.B. was in the house.") Perhaps at the crux of the debate of the old versus the new, then, is not even the ethics of anonymity, but the fact that being anonymous in a time of quickdraws on the iPhone might not be possible anymore. (And maybe it shouldn't be. Bauer has broached the British concept of being an 'out' reviewer in a past blog.) Anonymity might be the dinosaur here.

That is, I suppose, unless you’re willing to write under a pseudonym for a reasonably limited tenure—which would mean that one's ego would truly have to be set aside. But being a restaurant reviewer puts a person in a powerful position, and this power isn’t something I’m sure most reviewers are ready to give up. So now what?

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