Last week, Leslie Brenner, the restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News, officially gave anonymity the middle finger, publishing an interactive feature on the News' web site complete with portraits and video. In the story and video, Brenner announces that after years of masticating dry-aged steaks in the shadows, the jig is up. It's time for restaurateurs and readers alike to get to know her, and embrace a new level of dialogue about Dallas' food scene.
The move isn't quite groundbreaking. Brenner joins Adam Platt from New York Magazine in a new movement of critics who claim dining under the radar is impossible in the Internet age. They've both published lavish features with artful photos detailing exactly why they've decided to step into the spotlight.
Brenner's main hitch is that some restaurant employees have known who she is for years, so despite her best efforts she hasn't been dining anonymously all the time anyway. Sure, anonymity is useful in dining criticism, she writes. But by this point her own anonymity is nothing more than, as she puts it, a "grand charade."
But is it a useful charade? Brenner admits in her essay "in the best of all possible worlds, dining incognito is the ideal way for a restaurant critic to operate." And those words echo a column she wrote in 2009.
"The service -- and even often the cooking -- are very different if you're known to be a food writer or editor," she wrote of her previous dining experiences. "It's night and day," she added, which is why anonymous dining gives a critic the best shot of documenting a restaurant experience that will resonate with the average diner.
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A second point in her most recent essay notes that, so long as a critic doesn't announce their arrival by using fake names for reservations, a kitchen can do little to prepare ahead of time. But her own first essay counters that as well, pointing out that restaurants can make sure the executive chef is taking care of important plates personally, watching a critic's steak with a Thermapen in hand, while the rest of the meat on the grill sizzles away. Recognized critics can expect the most senior server, and while your chocolate soufflé is adorned with one raspberry, you can be assured your dining critic will get five. Here's 2009 Brenner:
I can tell you from having dined in Los Angeles as both a known food-world person when I was editor of the L.A. Times Food section and as an under-the-radar civilian that the service -- and even often the cooking -- are very different if you're known to be a food writer or editor. It's night and day. True, restaurant kitchens can't suddenly produce brilliant cooking if they can't already. But they can make sure the executive chef is taking care of your plate personally, and that you're assigned the best wait staff. If you're recognized as a critic? Fuggedaboudit.
Things may be changing, yes. And expertise, reporting and writing skills are hugely important. But in my book, that doesn't mean I'm going to start announcing myself: Ding dong -- critic in the house! Dropping anonymity makes life much easier for the critic. But it simply doesn't serve our readers to do so when there's a choice.
If things were changing then, they've really changed now. Camera phones are ubiquitous and Facebook is a sponge for pictures and other data about food critics and other media. So, yes, dining anonymously in any city for an extended period of time is difficult. And as a fellow critic who still does his best to maintain anonymity here in Dallas, I can attest that all the sneaking around can be a drag.
But I'm staying in the shadows. I agree with the Association of Food Journalists, which still says reviews should be conducted as anonymously as possible -- that the goal of restaurant criticism is to experience the restaurant just as ordinary patrons do, whenever possible. Sure, many of them are outed at a percentage of the restaurants they cover, but the policy is still the same -- do your best with every review. That exciting new Twitter avatar will just have to wait.