Armed with taste buds and an opinion, the restaurant critic possesses the power to sweeten or sour the supper. Could a norm of anonymous critics ensure the pen remains mightier than the fork?
For years, critics have been dining out and penning down the tastes and travesties of kitchens. Their opinion is held in high regard by many; schadenfreude by most. They are heralded, feared, and revered and are the diner everyone wants to impress. But thanks to photo-accompanied bylines and a vacant seat at the Masterchef critics table, this crowd has superseded journo and come out on the other side as among the most recognisable faces in the industry.
Consider then, a faceless critic, who can alleviate wait staff of buttock-clenching and faffing, and instead experience the occasion as any other diner would expect. Food blogger opinion, word of mouth and newspaper critics are steadfastly persuasive, and according to a recent survey by Hot Dinners, show no sign of shirking relevance. There’s a reviewer in all of us, and we rightly evaluate the food we’re paying for. But the moment a well-known critic walks in the door, the service and standard has been known to change – and how can this be fair?
While she’s not the first, the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin is of the few critics maintaining professional anonymity. Apart from Time Out’s Guy Dimond, the majority of national press food critics’ faces are hanging on cheat sheets in kitchens. Incredibly, Marina’s anonymity has been maintained since she began writing for Metro in 1999, and is still going since taking up the spot at the Guardian.
Her reason for low-key dining is simple. “I just think you do a better job,” she says. “You get a snapshot of what a restaurant is like for real people, rather than famous faces. Sure, the kitchen is unlikely to change the basic nature of what’s served to you, but the sloppy plate, the small portion, the slightly funky scallop, will never find their way onto the table of Mr or Ms Famous Critic.”
Keeping critics’ identities hush-hush was a house that Craig Claiborne is most credited with building. Claiborne was Food Editor and intermittent restaurant critic for the New York Times for 29 years, shifting critique from a pay-per-review culture to an anonymous, self-funded dining experience. With that came the notion of anonymity – pursued more steadfastly in America than the UK – and even attempts to circumvent identification with disguises and costumes. But in the past couple of years, the aspiration has fallen foul of savvy restaurateurs with cameras, as many of America’s best-known by name have finally taken permanent residence in Google image searches.
The sloppy plate, the small portion, the slightly funky scallop, will never find their way onto the table of Mr or Ms Famous Critic.
It goes without saying that reviews matter. No-one likes to be shouted down and embarrassed on the world stage. Punch-ups and Twitter tirades resulting from bad reviews are not unheard of, after all, these are livelihoods we’re talking about here. So recognising the one who could put paid with snarky spotlighting is a distinct advantage for any restaurant, and an opportunity to really shine. But overcompensation, waiters on your shoulder and clammy hands fingerprinting the plate can all be an unwelcome product of the recognisable critic.
Having dined with a not-so-anonymous reviewer, Marina’s witnessed the change. “The atmosphere immediately becomes horribly clenched. Staff who might otherwise be warm and friendly are terrified; and those who might be offhand are all over you like a rash.” Sounds an irritating feat, and one you’d think many would be only too happy to avoid.
Though some in the biz think they’ve got Marina figured out as a Nancy Dell’Olio doppelgänger, it’s not only looks that can give the critic away. “I once made the mistake of suggesting to a server that it wasn’t the right season for Vacherin. The chef was out of the kitchen in seconds. Now I act dumb.” And if she’s been clocked? “The little ‘extras’ start arriving. And the chef appears at the table and you’re suddenly dealing with actual human beings instead of business constructs. I hate meeting chefs – (a) they only want to be told how wonderful everything is and (b) it makes being properly critical really, really hard. Look at this lovely young man with the pregnant wife. How can I go on to say his restaurant has all the atmosphere of a call centre cafeteria?”
I once made the mistake of suggesting to a server that it wasn’t the right season for Vacherin. The chef was out of the kitchen in seconds.
The cold, hard truth is that a critic can be the mouth that holds the restaurant to account, and this can only be truly reflective of the typical dining experience if that funky scallop does actually make it to the table of the everyman. Seeing what could be an ‘off night’ in print can be devastating, but all the more necessary if we’re telling the truth and not painting portraits. Then again, there’s a lot to be thankful for. After all, critics are eating in the bad restaurants so you don’t have to.
This feature originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Digest Magazine.