Is it still necessary—or possible—for restaurant critic’s to be anonymous? It used to be given that the identities of the men and women who act as arbiters of the dining scene were kept secret, with the belief being that if critics did not get preferential treatment from restaurant staff, they would have a better chance of providing an honest and fair assessment of the experience for readers.
But then along came the Internet and cellphones, both of which have drastically changed the role of restaurant criticism. For one thing, most writers now have some sort of online identity that makes it easy for people to find out what they look like. And with regular diners now snapping photos at the table and instantaneously broadcasting their opinions, critics have had to figure out new ways to be relevant to an audience that can find out about restaurants from many sources.
A recent thread on Chowhound unpacked different arguments about the value of critic anonymity in today’s scene. The debate was jumpstarted by a member who saw coverage by San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer. Apparently, he had written “about a week of dining that included lunch at Cotogna with a prominent New York critic and a private dinner at Prospect, where a photo of Bauer’s meal also captured his place tag.”
Thus far, no real consensus has been reached. For every person who thinks it’s futile to seek anonymity, there is another who believes in keeping a low profile to avoid any special treatment that could cloud one’s judgment.
For what it’s worth, English critic Jay Rayner has long voiced his opinion that anonymity is unnecessary, a viewpoint that seems to be shared by many of his colleagues across the pond, who treat dinner similarly to a theatrical production. Yet there are still food writers who go to great lengths to remain incognito, most notably the Michelin guide inspectors and former NYT critic Frank Bruni, who discusses the use of fake names and costumes in his memoir, Born Round.