We're big fans of restaurant critic anonymity. It protects us from getting salads where fried capers have been intentionally replaced with bunny pellets, or having our Visa card number slipped to a Moldavian porn site after a review hits the street. That's why we go to great lengths to protect our anonymity, wearing a ski mask and falsies to dinner and paying with stolen credit cards whenever necessary. The Association of Food Journalists thinks anonymity is important, too (full disclosure: We aren't members). Its food critics' guidelines state, "Reviews should be conducted anonymously wherever possible" and "Critics should avoid functions that restaurateurs and chefs are likely to attend..."
These issues sprung to mind recently when D magazine restaurant critic and food and travel editor Nancy Nichols hosted an online chat on egullet.org last week (posted with a photo of Nichols holding a basket of vegetables), hashing over the uses of and abuses by restaurant critics and the role of anonymity in the criticism process. Much of the discussion focused on Nichols' article published last December in D on the lawsuit restaurateur Phil Romano filed against Dallas Morning News critic Dotty Griffith over her four-star review of Il Mulino New York. Noting that Griffith is widely recognized on account of her frequent television and restaurant-industry event appearances, Nichols concludes that critic anonymity is essentially obsolete. "Times have changed," she writes. "The advent of the Food Network and the emergence of chefs and dining critics like John Mariani as high-profile celebrities have put pressure on food writers to increase their visibility and feed the public's curiosity...In the long run, being recognized doesn't matter anymore--at least where the food is concerned."
In one sense, Nichols is exactly right: It's all but impossible to report on the restaurant industry and not be recognized by at least a few people. But the casual dismissal of anonymity raises some important questions: Doesn't recognition--let alone celebrity status--and the special treatment it engenders tear at the heart of a critic's credibility? Aren't readers justifiably suspicious of a critic who regularly courts publicity and seems to be a fixture in restaurant-industry social circles? And isn't there something unseemly about a critic surfing in the wake of chef celebrity to feed publicity cravings?
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"Sure, I try to remain anonymous," Nichols stresses. "But things have changed. I promote the food section of this magazine...I prefer the anonymous approach. But the fact I have a publisher who wants me to promote my magazine kind of changes that." If Nichols is right, restaurateurs have reason to rejoice, because once critics become widely recognized as celebrities with celebrity interests to protect, they become utterly useless in the long run.