The Case Against Anonymity When Reviewing Restaurants
An issue came up last week in a review of the OA Fine Dining survey. A writer named Julia Thiel reviewed the guide for the Chicago Reader. In her review, Thiel, criticized my practice of not dining anonymously saying;
"According to the New York Sun, Plotnicki makes no attempt to dine anonymously--his goal, he says, is to "elicit the best possible meal that a restaurant has to offer and in that context anonymity actually hurts instead of helps." Of course it does. That's the point--if you're reviewing a restaurant, you should try to have the experience most diners are likely to have. Even if the quality of food and service are likely to vary from customer to customer, seeking preferential treatment is pretty sure to skew a review. Or a restaurant guide."
Later that day, a second review from a Chicago writer appeared, this time by Michael Nagrant who was writing for Hungrymag.com. Nagrant amplified that same theme, going as far as calling me a shill, and he even went as far as saying that you couldn't trust the way I tabulate the results of my survey because of my relationships with various chefs. Fortunately Josh Ozersky took them both to task in a short piece he wrote in response to Thiel's and Nagrant's posts on New York Magazine's Grub Street. Go Josh! Not only does New York City have better restaurants than Chicago (as determined by the OAD survey,) it appears it has better journalists!
But seriously, I'm sure both Thiel and Nagrant are nice enough people and meant no harm to anyone. And Nagrant was nice enough to post my response to him as a comment on his blog. But they both failed to grasp what is a significant distinction between the situation they are describing, where a journalist receives an atypical meal that is not generally available to the public, and what I do which is to search for the atypical meal that is generally available to the public, providing one knows how to ask for it.
Back in the old days, when people knew a lot less about food and when a big night out meant eating a rack of veal with a fancy sauce at Chez Ordinaire which was run by some guy named Claude or Marcello, there was a concern that if a restaurant owner knew that a reviewer was in the house, he would run out replace his $4 a pound veal with $5 a pound veal in order to get a better write up. I always found that claim amusing as where on earth would you find $5 a pound veal at 9:30 at night? But in these times, when the competition between restaurants is so fierce, and where the purveyor of the ingredients is often printed right on the menu, and when critics are able to taste the difference between beef that is sourced from Niman Ranch as opposed to Brandt Ranch (at least they are supposed to be able to tell the difference,) why are we still concerned about a chef playing a shell game with their ingredients? I once discussed the topic with Tom Colicchio who told me, "What can I do if I know a reviewer is in the house, serve him a center cut veal chop rather than one of the ends?"
The truth is, the chefs and restaurant owners all know what the reviewers look like anyway. But even if they didn't, do we really think that chefs are dishonest? I know a lot of chefs and I can't think of a single one who would pull that type of stunt even if they could. I mean if there are culprits here, it certainly isn't food writers who are merely trying to convey information to diners. But I guess maybe Thiel and Nagrant really believe that chef's will cheat given the chance. Or maybe they already know some dishonest chefs. If that is the case, it's time to name names. Or maybe Thiel and Nagrant, and other food journalists, are blindly following a rule that is antiquated and doesn't make sense in a contemporary context. Isn't it time that the food press re-examined this silly practice?