Monday, February 23, 2009

Why Anonymity Pays

In this town, at least, most of the mainstream food critics are highly recognizable sorts who make no attempt to hide their identities from restaurant managers and staff. This is a problem. By simply being recognized they compromise the integrity of their reviews.

Having knowingly served multiple food critics (one I didn't even have to recognize myself as it was on the reservation that he worked for a national publication), I know that servers and kitchen staff are on their best behavior and like to put on a show for the special guest. At the best places, admittedly, this makes little to no difference as kitchen and service are always on their best behavior. However, at the overpriced and under-good restaurants of the world, knowledge like this can make the average-at-best staff scramble to devise something worthy of the price tag.

The best way I have found to illustrate this is to imagine a conversation with a new friend versus one with a reporter. These are very different exchanges. Once you know that your words will be rebroadcast, your words change. The same holds true for a restaurant that knows a critic is in the house. The menu may even change for this omnipotent pen-bearer. An amuse bouche suddenly flies out of the kitchen, and the executive chef oversees every dish going to that table rather than remaining in his office.

The other thing is that these critics, independent or otherwise, often get extras or freebies from restaurants in the know. This clouds their view further. Frankly, if someone gives me something for free I am much more apt to have a positive view of the item than if I am constantly evaluating whether the item provides value for the price.

All of this comes down to why I will do my absolute best to keep my face detached from my reviews. My anonymity is beneficial to my readers, and, although it may cost me more, to my credibility as a critic.

Brian William Waddell is a foodie, beer geek, and author. His numerous blog posts range from food to politics. He also has a book of poetry, Fractured Prose, available here, and is ready to publish his second poetic endeavor.

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