How to be a restaurant critic

Nothing gets foodies more excited than the discovery of a new food, for example the cheese-and-bacon-stuffed pizza burger, except perhaps a jolly good debate about whether restaurant critics should be anonymous.

Photo by Brett Stevens brettstevensphotography.com

 

Just before Christmas 2010, LA Times critic, S Irene Virbila, was outed after 15 years of relative visual obscurity as she waited outside a new Asian restaurant. The restaurant’s owners fronted Virbila while she waited for 45 minutes, photographed her without permission (top restaurants bad photographs of the room for fear of celebrity clients being papped), refused to serve her and then posted the photo online. It was obnoxious behaviour regardless of who she was.

But it’s big news because American restaurant critics pride themselves on flying under the radar. Amid the gnashing of teeth, the obvious fact most people overlook is that the supposedly anonymous critic was pinged.

Some, such as the former New York Times critic Ruth Reichl, went to extraordinary lengths to disguise themselves. Her outfits became characters in their own right, which she wrote about in her memoir Garlic & Sapphires It got a bit kinky when she began dressing as her dead mother. In her infamous 1993 review of Le Cirque, Reichl wrote about the chasm between going in disguise, and then being recognised. I think everyone’s lifted their game since then.

I’ve been a restaurant critic for 15 years. My colleague Tony Love, critic for Adelaide’s The Advertiser, thinks you have about three years before everyone knows you.

My photo is published alongside my column every Tuesday in The Daily Telegraph. It’s the same for every major Australian critic. In the UK, where restaurant reviews have replaced fox hunting as the nation’s top blood spot, the critics are celebrities every bit as famous as Gordon Ramsay.

I’d argue the idea of the anonymous critic is a silly conceit. Any restaurateur worth their Murray River pink salt goes out of their way to know their customers and that includes critics. And they’re not stupid. They swap intelligence and gossip and photos of critics, perhaps taken from the in-house security cameras, amongst themselves. Pretending you’re unknown is a bit like “secret” agent James Bond rocking up at the evil villain’s party hoping he won’t be recognised.

That said, there’s a little bit of cat and mouse to dining out as a critic. I always book under an assumed name and use assorted friends’ mobile phone numbers. I have to remember which ones I’ve used previously where because many restaurants have sophisticated databases that red flag certain numbers and names. They track what you like to eat and drink and how often you visit, so they know who their best (spending) customers) are and look after them.

I’ve booked Matt Moran’s Aria under “Waylon Smithers”. A waiter asked about the unusual name  (Well, you work nights and try and find time to watch The Simpsons). Yes, I’ve also used Wiggum, Bouvier, Brockman and Flanders. I had a Thunderbirds phase too.

I send my date in alone five-to-10 minutes beforehand. They’re allocated the table (yes I’ve had ‘Let’s just move you…’ when I arrive, but refuse) and my date watches and benchmarks how the waiters treated us both before and after my arrival. I watch the service at other tables. Five people fawning over me counts for nothing when an elderly couple across the room are still waiting to pay their bill.

My benchmark is leaving wondering whether I was sprung because there’s no appreciable change in the service or tone. At worst, everyone’s been fussed over that night.

I’ve known chefs who cook two of everything before deciding which one to send out, but that doesn’t change the idea behind the dish or produce quality. Most of the work’s been done before I arrive. It hasn’t stopped plenty of kitchens buggering up the food anyway

That said, I still slide into places unnoticed, albeit rarely now.

Fact checking with one chef, they asked when I was coming in and was startled to discover I’d visited twice. “But the waiters all have your picture!” they exclaimed. Not surprisingly, I found the service haphazard.

Some places have two pictures of me at every waiter’s station. Some places simply don’t care. My only disguise is that I’m generally older, fatter, more tired and much more dishevelled than I appear in my picture in the paper.

Several years ago, before he became a pig farmer in Tasmania, the former Sydney restaurant critic Matthew Evans spent the afternoon being transformed into an old man by a makeup artist before heading out to dinner at Otto, the hip Italian restaurant on the water at Woolloomooloo.

Many people thought Otto had one level of service for its often-famous clientele – John Laws ate there so much at one stage he bought a share in Otto – and another for those in economy class.  The good news? Evans was surprised by how well he – and everyone else – was treated. Otto was a class act and did what every good restaurant should do.

I have one final tip for any restaurateurs worried there’s a critic in their midst. You’ll find them easy to spot. In this era of food blogs, the critic is the only one without a massive digital SLR camera photographing their dinner.

 

 

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